Power FigureArtist(s)SongyeArtist NationalitySongyeObject Creation Datecirca 1940Medium & Supportwood, civet and monkey skin, woven vegetable fiber, feathers, seed pods, animal teeth, antelope horns, glass beads, metalDimensions
24 7/16 in x 11 13/16 in x 9 13/16 in (62 cm x 30 cm x 25 cm)Credit LineGift of Candis and Helmut SternSubject matter
This formidable nkisi
, or power figure, is attributed to the Songye, 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 (pl. mukishi
) as well as the intermediary vehicle 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 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 ill client would place the nkisi
in an altar in the corner of the home and may rub it with oil upon the appearance of a new moon 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 medicine bundle holding feathers and a horn; a much larger horn appears at the fontanelle, the site where communication with spirits takes place. The especially intimidating appearance of this nkisi
was also likely intended to repel malevolent forces away from the client’s home.
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 imposing, anthropomorphic Songye nkisi
, or power figure, stands upright and features an assemblage of man-made, vegetal, and animal components. Most strikingly, a large antelope horn protrudes vertically from the figure’s head, and two animal teeth have been affixed to the corners of its mouth giving the appearance of fangs. Bearing wide, alert eyes, this fearsome figure is enswathed by civet and monkey skin. Horns, including a smaller one inserted into a larger one, have been tightly strapped around the figure’s chest. Also attached to the figure are seed pods, an ax blade, and glass beads. A medicine bundle carrying feathers and a horn hangs behind the figure's back.Primary Object Classification Wood and Woodcarving Primary Object TypefigureCollection AreaAfricanRights
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.
horns (animal components)
skin (animal component)
teeth (animal components)