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Power figure

Accession Number
2005/1.189

Title
Power figure

Artist(s)
Beembe (Kongo)

Object Creation Date
circa 1870

Medium & Support
wood, beads, metal, and ceramic fragments

Dimensions
14 15/16 in x 3 13/16 in x 3 3/16 in (38 cm x 9.7 cm x 8.1 cm);1 5/8 in x 3 13/16 in x 3 3/16 in (4.1 cm x 9.7 cm x 8.1 cm);14 15/16 in x 3 13/16 in x 3 3/16 in (38 cm x 9.7 cm x 8.1 cm);12 5/8 in x 3 1/8 in x 3 1/8 in (32 cm x 8 cm x 8 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Label copy
March 28, 2009
This well-worn figure may have started its life as a mukuya—a figure commemorating a clan ancestor—that was later converted into an nkisi, or power figure. Such repurposing of an important ritual object was not uncommon in the wider Bakongo region, where ritual specialists used figures like this one to invoke the power of ancestors and other spiritual forces to intercede in human affairs. The long, pointed beard denoting elderly wisdom, the prominent genitalia, and the tense, truncated legs are characteristic features of male Bembe figures. The glass beads, bells, and bits of metal, along with medicinal packs (now lost) that would have hung from the rings around the figure’s neck, were meant to add to the power of the figure in doing its work. Its white eyes, made from bits of imported ceramic, signaled the presence of ngolo, occult power. The smiling and tranquil face of this figure belies the potency and potential danger with which it was invested in its original context.

Subject matter
This well-worn figure may have started its life as a mukuya--a figure commemorating a clan ancestor--and was later converted into an nkisi, or power figure. Such repurposing of an important ritual object was not uncommon in the wider Bakongo region, where ritual specialists used figures like this one to invoke the power of ancestors as well as other spiritual forces to intercede in human affairs.

Physical Description
Wood-carved, standing figure with knees slightly flexed, prominent gentalia, naturalistic face, pointed beard and eyes inset with a white material, probably small ceramic fragments. The feet are missing. It wears a metal ring around its neck, and a string with metal fragments, glass beads and a small metal bell is attached across its chest, from arm to arm. A vertical crack on the front right side of the figure is filled with a gauzy material.

Primary Object Classification
Sculpture

Primary Object Type
minkisi

Collection Area
African

Rights
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
ancestors
figures (representations)
minkisi

& Author Notes

Web Use Permitted