Power Figure

Accession Number

Power Figure

Vili (Kongo)

Artist Nationality

Object Creation Date
circa 1850

Medium & Support
wood, metal tack, glass chips and resin

12 1/4 in x 3 15/16 in x 3 9/16 in (31.1 cm x 10 cm x 9 cm);12 1/4 in x 3 15/16 in x 3 9/16 in (31.1 cm x 10 cm x 9 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Subject matter
The term nkisi refers to both the spirit personality (pl. bakisi) controlling a particular activity or function as well as to the physical object (pl. minkisi) serving as an intermediary vehicle through which the spirit personality is accessed in order to fulfill a specific need for the living. Minkisi function either benevolently or malevolently to promote order and balance between individuals and within the community; thus, they possess the ability to heal, protect, promote success, and restore justice or to harm, inflict injury and illness, and exact revenge. Minkisi are designed, operated, and controlled by an nganga (pl. banganga), an expert healer and mediator of spirits and forces. What imbues the minkisi with power, however, is the collective, potent medicine they hold which the nganga meticulously prepares on behalf of clients. The medicinal substances, known as bilongo, include a myriad of vegetable, animal, and mineral ingredients such as seeds, leaves, shells, horns, feathers, claws, animal skins, and soil. Such ingredients were chosen for linguistic, metaphoric, and symbolic reasons rather than pharmacological ones; for example, the inclusion of a snake head would represent attacking power. These items are generally held in packets, bundles, and horns affixed to cavities or protrusions in the figure or tied around it; the absence of bilongo rendered an nkisi impotent and ineffectual. The nganga consecrates and activates minkisi in a context often involving prayers, songs, drums, and dance. 

This particular nkisi was probably used for benevolent purposes such as healing or protection from potential harm. A medicine pack was likely attached to its abdomen, evidenced by the four holes bored into its torso, as well as on the top of its head. The belly (mooyo) also means “life” or "soul" and is where bilongo was most commonly placed on minkisi. The head is believed to be the site of communication with spirits, and therefore placing bilongo here maximized spirit interaction. The collar represents another place where bilongo is typically carried.

African Form and Imagery:  Detroit Collects.  Ed. Judith A. Ruskin.  Detroit:  Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Society, 1996.  
Felix, Marc Leo.  100 Peoples of Zaire and Their Sculpture:  A Handbook.  Brussels:  Zaire Basin Art History Research Foundation, 1987.  
_____.  Art et Kongos.  Brussels:  Zaire Basin Art History Research Center, 1995.
A History of Art in Africa.  2nd Edition.  Eds. Monica Visona, Robin Poynor, and Herbert Cole.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson Education, Inc., 2008. 
LaGamma, Alisa.  Art and Oracle:  African Art and Rituals of Divination.  New York:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. 
MacGaffey, Wyatt.  Excerpt from an Unknown Publication in Object Folder for 2005/1.191. 
MacGaffey, Wyatt and Michael Harris.  Astonishment and Power:  Kongo Minkisi & The Art of Renee Stout.  Washington, DC:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
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.
McClusky Pamela.  Art from Africa:  Long Steps Never Broke a Back.  Seattle and Princeton:  Seattle Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press, 2002.
Simon, Kavuna and Wyatt MacGaffey.  “Northern Kongo Ancestor Figures.”  African Arts.  28:2 (Spring 1995):  pp. 48-53+91.

Physical Description
This anthropomorphic nkisi, or power figure, stands upright and features a rather large, forward-tilting head with a prominent, parted mouth, high cheekbones with shallow cheeks, and chipped glass-encrusted lower eyes. A brass tack pierces the figure’s forehead, directly above its nose.  The figure possesses a rectangular torso and robust appendages, although the lower arms and feet are missing. The figure likely held a medicine pack upon its abdomen, evidenced by the four holes bored into its torso, and another one upon its cranium. Around the figure’s neck is a collar, possibly of leather, another place in which medicines are carried.

Primary Object Classification

Primary Object Type

Collection Area

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spirits (beings)
traditional medicine

& Author Notes

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