Accession Number


Songye; Kalebwe

Artist Nationality

Object Creation Date
circa 1850

Medium & Support
wood, vegetable fiber, animal skin, glass, beads, seed pod, metal, calabash, kaolin (white clay), and resin

9 4/5 in x 5 ⅝ in x 4 3/10 in (24.92 cm x 14.29 cm x 10.95 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Subject matter
This power figure, or nkisi, is attributed to the Bekalebwe, one of the primary subgroups of the Songye people, who today live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, the Songye are known for excelling in the production of power figures like this, known collectively as minkisi. The term nkisi refers to both the spirit personality as well as the intermediary vehicle or vessel through which the spirit is accessed in order to fulfill a specific need for the living. Minkisi are designed and controlled by an nganga, a diviner and healer, who serves as a clairvoyant spirit mediator capable of transversing the temporal and celestial realms. Able to detect and communicate with unseen forces, the nganga offers diagnoses and treatments for both individual and societal crises and afflictions, such as infertility and the plague. The nganga would specially craft medicinal substances, or bishimba, from plants, animals, and minerals and place them within horns and packets affixed to the figure. These ingredients were chosen exclusively for their symbolic value rather than for pharmacological reasons. The ailing client would place the nkisi on an altar in the corner of the home and rub it with oil in order to appease and reinvigorate the spirit. After the client’s successful recovery, a votive offering in the form of an adornment would be presented to the nkisi, reflecting the dynamic use and potent efficacy of the object. 

Here, the figure carries a belt filled with medicine around its chest, and a cavity, likely intended for the placement of an animal horn, appears at the fontanelle, the site where communication with spirits takes place. The strands of beads as well as the encrustation seen on the figure’s surface are evidence of offerings and libations. The three bells affixed to the nkisi serve as sonic instruments to summon the spirit world and to ward of malevolent forces. 

​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 Songye nkisi, which depicts a standing male figure, displays many of the characteristic hallmarks of Songye anthropomorphic carvings, namely: an overall strong geometric form, squared shoulders, a large head, a triangular face with a rounded forehead and concave cheeks, deep ocular cavities, a rectangular mouth, diminutive ears, and a long, ringed neck. The head is strikingly studded with numerous, indigenously-made brass tacks; furthermore, a cavity on the skull suggests that a horn was at one point likely placed there. A belt of animal skin filled with medicinal substances is wrapped around the chest, while two strands of colored beads are tied across the torso. Three bells, themselves affixed to the strings of beads, dangle below the nkisi figure. An animal skin loincloth covers the bottom half of the figure. In addition to kaolin, the nkisi’s surface bears a crusty patina, evidence that it was the recipient of consecrational and votive libations.  

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
beads (pierced objects)
bells (idiophones)
plant components
skin (animal component)
spirits (beings)
traditional medicine
votive offerings

& Author Notes

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