Accession Number


Vili (Kongo)

Artist Nationality

Object Creation Date
circa 1860

Medium & Support
wood and antelope horn

8 7/16 in x 1 7/8 in x 1 7/8 in (21.43 cm x 4.76 cm x 4.76 cm);2 3/16 in x 1 7/8 in x 1 7/8 in (5.56 cm x 4.76 cm x 4.76 cm);4 in x 1 1/16 in x 9/16 in (10.16 cm x 2.7 cm x 1.43 cm);3 3/8 in x 1 3/8 in x 1 in (8.57 cm x 3.49 cm x 2.54 cm);8 7/16 in x 1 7/8 in x 1 7/8 in (21.43 cm x 4.76 cm x 4.76 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Label copy
March 28, 2009
This delicate antelope horn whistle manifests a rich network of meanings and associations. It is adorned by a small, removable sculpture that alludes to the Vili saying, “Two royal eagles fight over a peanut.” This metaphor for two men who fight over a woman speaks to the role of the diviner, who must insert himself into seemingly irreconcilable situations. Divination whistles were used with power figures (nkisi) to call upon ancestral spirits in the supernatural realm and enlist their help in detecting sources of misfortune in the world of the living. While less elaborate versions of this whistle are used for communication among hunters, this type is the sole prerogative of ritual specialists.  

Subject matter
This antelope horn whistle ornamented by handsomely carved bird imagery is attributed to the Vili, a Kongo subgroup, who live in the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Gabon. The Kikongo name for whistle, nsiba, is a combination of nsia, a species of antelope from which the horn is taken, and the verb siba, “to invoke.” An nganga, a clairvoyant healer-diviner and spiritual medium, blew whistles in order to summon spirit beings, or minkisi (singular: nkisi), who operate in the invisible, supernatural realm.  Due to his ability to receive hidden knowledge about past events from spirits, individuals and families sought the nganga's help to resolve crises and disputes.  Furthermore, the nganga could invoke spirits to hunt down the responsible culprit or offending party.
     This particular whistle tangibly illustrates a well-known Vili proverb, “Two royal eagles fighting over a peanut,” which metaphorically describes two men battling over the same woman and the resulting tension that arises. The nganga, represented by the horn, literally comes in between the two parties in order to investigate, mediate, and resolve the conflict, with the ultimate aim of restoring justice and morality. In addition to narrating the drama of this proverb, this whistle is clearly as much a work of art as it is an instrument of sound.

LaGamma, Alisa.  Art and Oracle:  African Art and Rituals of Divination.  New York:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.
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.

Physical Description
This exquisite Vili whistle (nsiba) is has two separate components: the body of the whistle is a gazelle horn that has been placed through a small, conical hole in the rounded base of a delicately carved wooden cap. Upon this cap, two nearly identical birds, with their talons clutching the base, stand face-to-face and chest-to-chest, grasping onto a single spherical object representing a peanut between their open beaks. Given this motif, the carving naturally possesses a high degree of symmetry and balance. The cap is further embellished by a smooth and polished finish.

Primary Object Classification
Musical Instrument

Primary Object Type

Collection Area

If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit http://umma.umich.edu/request-image for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form. Keywords
horns (animal components)
spirits (beings)

& Author Notes

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