Doing History with African Objects

Welcome to Doing History with African Objects, a guided experience with some of the histories that are hiding in plain sight in UMMA's collection.

UMMA acquired the figure to the right in 2005 as part of a large donation of African objects from collectors Candis and Helmut Stern. To give you a sense of scale, it stands a bit over 3' tall.

Step 1 - observation

To get a closer view of the object, go to the object's collection record (this will open a new tab). There is a small "zoom" button below the image in the collection record.

1) Take some time to look closely at the figure. Note three things that stand out to you. Note one detail that you think might be easily missed if someone did not look closely.

2) Is there anything that looks like it's missing from the figure? Any areas where it looks like something was detached or removed? Compare with the object you see below to get a better idea of what was modified. 

Read this brief text about Nkisi Nkondi to learn about these elements that are sometimes present and sometimes absent in museum collections.

One example of insights through material history: The elements that have sometime been removed from these types of objects can also give us interesting clues to their history. Sometimes, the magical elements were removed by the objects' caretakers because they knew the objects were being taken by Europeans and wanted to depower them. Other times these elements were removed by European collectors who wanted their objects to have clean lines and did not like the messiness of the textile and botanical elements.

Step 2 - the collection record

Read through the entire collection record.

3) What does the record tell people about when and where this object is from?

4) Do you have any thoughts about deficiencies in this information and what could be done to make it more understandable for the general museum goer?

5) Where does the estimated date in the record place this object in history in relation to European colonialism in this part of Africa? When was the Congo colonized? According to what you've seen and read so far, does this object have anything to do with colonial occupation?

6) What questions about the object and its history do you still have after reading the museum record?

Step 3 - How old is it? How did it get here?

7) Art historians and archeaologists often have to make educated guesses about how old things are. Do you have any speculations about where the estimated date on this object comes from?

8) Curators of African art often focus on researching and reconstructing the history of how each individual object travelled from where it was created. What can we learn about the path this object followed from the collection record?

9) What are research questions that could be pursued with this object that would help us to better understand its history? What sorts of sources could researchers look at? What ways could they analyze the object?

Step 4 - Doing History

Watch this video in which Andrew Gurstelle, then an archaeology graduate student at UM, explains how he was able to reconsider what we know about this object by asking new questions about its material history.

10) What new questions did Gurstelle ask about this object?

11) What research did he do to answer those questions?

12) How does Gurstelle's research help us to better understand the object's history?

Wood-carved, standing male figure 40 inches in height. Its shoulders and torso are impaled with iron blades, nails and fragments. The torso is long, arms at side are bent at elbow and hands rest on lower abdomen. The right wrist wears a bracelet with attachments. The legs are truncated, with twisted metal anklet on right foot. The face is naturalistic, the mouth slightly open, the nose long and narrow with slightly flared nostrils. Eyes are almond shaped, may have had inlay that is now gone. The top of the head shows a tiered, "layer cake like" coiffure. The figure has a long and deep crack down the entire length of its left side, from top of the head to the left ankle.
Vili (Kongo)
Power Figure
wood, iron nails, blades and fragments, and fiber cord
40 3/4 in x 13 3/4 in x 10 1/16 in (103.5 cm x 35 cm x 25.5 cm);40 3/4 in x 13 3/4 in x 10 1/16 in (103.5 cm x 35 cm x 25.5 cm)
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern
This small power figure features a naturalistic human face engulfed in layers of multi-media attachments, which create an imposing visual effect. The figure wears a blue turban wrapped around its head that binds bundles of medicinal substances and is crowned with several feathers. It also dons a metal necklace and a small bone dangles from the arm. The lower body is covered in fiber and a skirt of long leather strips. Possessing eyes encrusted with glass, the figure stands on top of a carved wooden turtle and holds the tip of a curved piece of wood in its mouth, the other end of which terminates in its clutched right hand. A large medicine pack, topped with a round mirror, is affixed to the figure's torso, which is thickly coated with resin and red pigment.
Power Figure
wood, mirror, glass, hide, fiber, feathers, resin, pigment, cloth, raffia and bone
18 1/2 in x 17 5/16 in x 15 3/4 in (47 cm x 44 cm x 40 cm);18 1/2 in x 17 5/16 in x 15 3/4 in (47 cm x 44 cm x 40 cm)
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern


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March 30, 2021 10:15 a.m.


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