Power Figure

Accession Number

Power Figure


Artist Nationality
Yombe (culture or style)

Object Creation Date
2nd half of 19th century

Medium & Support
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)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Label copy
March 28, 2009
Through the intervention of a ritual expert (nganga), an nkisi, or power figure, becomes imbued with the capacity to heal, protect, or, conversely, to do harm to one’s enemies. This nkisi’s stare suggests that it stands guard, and the mirror on its torso is intended to deflect subversive forces. Its potency is increased by bundles of medicinal herbs contained beneath the feathered turban. Strips of curling hide radiate around the figure and extend its energy into the surrounding space.
Most colonial officials and missionaries banned power figures from their precincts. The large number found in art collections throughout the world speaks to the undeniable allure and charisma of these objects, as well as to the vigor with which they were removed by the authorities.

Subject matter
Nkisi nduda is a type of nkisi, the most numerous and best-documented Kongo visual form. 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 are designed, operated, and controlled by an nganga (pl. banganga), an expert healer and mediator of spirits and forces. Minkisi are of multiple types and, in general, fall under two broad categories: those who have a benevolent function and those who have an aggressive nature. Associated with warfare, nduda falls into this latter category. 

An nduda typically involves a small figure which wears a skirt of leather strips from jackal or monkey skin and dons a feather headdress associating it with the sky and violence from “the above.” The figure also often bears medicinal substances (bilongo) comprised of a variety of vegetable, animal, and mineral ingredients meticulously chosen by the nganga on behalf of the client. Additionally, the figure normally carries a mirror which the nganga used in order to tell if a warrior was vulnerable that day and should therefore avoid battle. Warriors and men undertaking perilous journeys would carry an nkisi nduda in a small shoulder bag on which were mounted hollow tubes stuffed with gunpowder that served as “night guns” to protect the bearer against malevolent forces. 

This particular nkisi nduda features a complex variety of accoutrements. The figure stands upon a turtle, a symbol of wisdom as well as a creature that withdraws its head so as not to be seen; this latter quality imparts on the nduda the ability to similarly hide itself from evil agents. The feathers on top of the turban as well as long strips of leather upon its skirt would flutter in the hands of the nganga suggesting mpeve, “breeze” or “spirit”—a sign of vitality and animation. Like other minkisi, this nduda bears packets of medicine upon its head as well as a large pack on its abdomen. The head is believed to be the site of communication with spirits; placing bilongo here maximized spirit interaction. The belly (mooyo) also means “life” or "soul" and is where bilongo was most commonly held. The figure also chews on a munkwisa root, a plant from the ginger family, whose acidic juice was believed to ward off malicious spirits and hence offer protection. This nduda’s manifold elements and complex matrix of materials all intend to convey its power and to evoke within the on-looker a sense of awe and astonishment (ngitukulu).

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.  
Felix, Marc Leo.  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 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.

Primary Object Classification

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
protection (maintenance function)
traditional medicine

& Author Notes

Web Use Permitted

On display

UMMA Gallery Location ➜ AMH, 1st floor ➜ 115 (ArtGym)