Wood, glass, iron, pigment, cloth, plant fiber, horn, nails
H x W x D: 42.7 x 26.6 x 19.3 cm (16 13/16 x 10 1/2 x 7 5/8 in.)
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Late 19th to mid-20th century
The term nkisi (pl. minkisi) has no English equivalent. In the past "fetish" and "power figure" have been used as brief identifiers, but they do not convey the word's meaning. A nkisi is the physical container for a spirit from the other world, the land of the dead. When activated by a specialist, or nganga, it has the power to heal, to protect or to punish. Minkisi can be dramatic wooden sculptures with mirror-covered resin boxes added to hold the empowering substances, or they can be ordinary containers such as pots, net bags and baskets. An active nkisi requires the rituals of its nganga, and it always contains medicines, materials with potential spiritual powers. The mirror-covered stomach pack and other amulets and containers identify this figure as a nkisi, and its aggressive pose (the upraised arm originally held a blade) suggests it is a nkondi (hunter) type. By occult means, this type of nkisi hunted down unidentified witches, thieves, adulterers and other wrongdoers. It once had a personal name and invocations that are now lost to us.
The public performance aspect of the rituals would have made the purpose of the nkisi clear, but much about the composition of its medicines would have been known only to the nganga, possessor of the ability to see into the spirit world. There is a certain blurring of identity between the nkisi and the nganga. This nkisi carries musical instruments like the ones used by the nganga--antelope horn whistles, a crescent-shaped wooden slit gong and a miniature iron gong. The container hanging from the right arm is in the shape of a gunpowder flask, a distinctive form with suspension cords running through interior channels on its sides. The nganga commonly aroused the attention of the nkisi nkondi by exploding gunpowder in front of it. The ball that closes the flask is a spherical seedpod containing medicines. Not visible is another medicine pack on the bottom of the flask, one of about a dozen empowering additions, an unusually large number. Because these medicines are on the front and back, atop the head and between the legs, on the shoulders, feet and elbow, they literally cover all directions and, like the reflective glass eyes, enable the nkisi nkondi to see witches, those who would do harm. The eyes are further emphasized by red and white lines, the "tears" that come with death. Literally every item, color and form on this figure has a meaning, so that what began as a relatively compact, solidly modeled sculpture becomes an exposition of Kongo beliefs to those with the eyes of knowledge.
Male figure with upraised proper right arm, proper left hand on his hip and a circular mirrored medicine pack on the stomach and arm. The eyes are inset with glass and there are red and white lines under the eyes down the cheeks. Attachments include wood, crescent shaped slit gong, iron gong, antelope horn, cylindrical bark box and a ceramic gunpowder flask with seed pod instead of top.
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