Fly whisk

Accession Number

Fly whisk


Artist Nationality

Object Creation Date
circa 1800

Medium & Support
wood, lead, cotton fiber, and buffalo hair

18 3/8 in x 2 7/16 in x 3 1/4 in (46.6 cm x 6.2 cm x 8.3 cm);6 9/16 in x 2 7/16 in x 3 1/4 in (16.6 cm x 6.2 cm x 8.3 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Subject matter
This elegantly carved buffalo hair fly-whisk is attributed to the Dondo, a Kongo subgroup, who were based in the Republic of the Congo. Despite its name, carved fly-whisks such as this one were not intended to disperse insects but rather functioned as a wand of sorts. In fact, fly-whisks were used in particular ceremonial contexts and constituted an essential element of a chief's regalia and symbolized his rank. For example, when dealing with serious matters related to the community, the chief would dip the whisk hairs into a medicine-filled pot imbuing the hair with the power to heal, deter evil, or effect punishment. After addressing the public, the chief would move the fly-whisk across his body signaling his authority to the audience.  

 This particular fly-whisk features a standing female figure whose head and narrow torso are decorated with finely detailed, diamond and geometric shaped scarification patterns of leaden inlay. A red cloth is wrapped below her torso, while buffalo hair forms her skirt. The female's cylindrical, elongated body, straight shoulders, and raised arms are characteristics often seen among Dondo anthropomorphic figures. The female figure likely depicts an ancestor, offering protection to the chief and ensuring the reproductive success of his community.  

Cooksey, Susan, Robin Poynor, and Hein Vanhee, Eds.  Kongo across the Waters.  Gainesville:  University of Florida Press, 2013.
Cornet, Joseph.  Art from Zaire:  100 Masterworks from the National Collection.  New York:  African-American Institute, 1975.  
Felix, Marc Leo.  Art et Kongos.  Brussels:  Zaire Basin Art History Research Center, 1995.
Maurer, Evan M. and Niangi Batulukisi.  Spirits Embodied:  Art of the Congo, Selections from the Helmut F. Stern Collection.  Minneapolis:  The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1999.
​Thomspson, Robert Farris.  See the Music, Hear the Dance:  Rethinking African Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Ed.  Frederick John Lamp.  Baltimore and Munich:  Prestel Publishing, 2004.

Physical Description
This wood-carved fly-whisk bears a standing female figure whose narrow, cylindrical, and elongated torso doubles as its handle. Geometric and diamond shaped scarification patterns of leaden inlay, worn smooth due to extended use, decorate the head and body while her right arm extends to reach the top of her head; the left arm is missing. A patterned, red cotton wrap marks the transition zone between the figure's torso and the buffalo hair below. In effect, the buffalo hair visually acts as a grass skirt completing the above figure's body and dress.  

Primary Object Classification
Wood and Woodcarving

Primary Object Type

Collection Area

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carvings (visual works)
figures (representations)
fly whisks
hair (animal components)
woodwork (general works)

& Author Notes

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