Power FigureArtist(s)BwendeArtist NationalityBwendeObject Creation Datecirca 1890Medium & Supportwood, shells and metalDimensions
15 in x 4 ¼ in x 5 ½ in (38.1 cm x 10.8 cm x 13.97 cm);13 ¼ in x 4 ⅛ in x 5 in (33.66 cm x 10.48 cm x 12.7 cm);1 ¾ in x 4 ¼ in x 5 ½ in (4.45 cm x 10.8 cm x 13.97 cm)Credit LineGift of Candis and Helmut SternSubject matter
This power figure may be an example of an nkisi nkondi
and is attributed to the Bwende, a Kongo subgroup, who today live in the Republic of the Congo and, to a lesser extent, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nkisi nkondi
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
), 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 promoting health and prosperity and those who have an aggressive nature inflicting harm or damage. Nkondi
(“hunter”, pl. minkondi
) fall into this latter category; derived from the word konda
, “to hunt at night,” these carved anthropomorphic and zoomorphic wooden figures, often referred to as “nail figures,” are pounded with mbau
(nails, screws, blades, and other hardware) and are intended to pursue, attack, and afflict thieves, adulterers, and other wrongdoers. By driving metal hardware into an nkondi
, the nganga
provokes it into delivering similar injuries or illnesses to the guilty on behalf of the victim or client seeking retribution. Also used in arbitrating conflicts between parties, sealing agreements, and receiving oaths, minkondi
act as watchful witnesses and maintainers of justice. Agreements, pacts, and oaths are taken in front of an nkondi
, into which the nganga
drives a nail or blade to “tie down” or bind the covenant, a process called bibaaku
. If a party fails to uphold their end of an agreement or commits perjury, the spirit of the figure will punish the individual. Thus, each piece of hardware represents a type of appeal to the spirit and, for the onlooker, serves as a visual reminder of its formidable and fearsome power.
Figures studded with nails and blades were produced by the Bwende in various sizes: large ones intended for the community were housed in shrines (~98 cm); medium-sized ones were kept by the nganga
(~61 cm); and, smaller ones were used for personal protection. This indicates that the physical size of the figure is commensurate with the power it commands.
This particular figure has two metal rods forcibly pounded into its abdomen; its seemingly androgynous characteristics may be attributed to the fact that minkis
i are not intended to be exact portraits of avenging spirits or of expected victims, but rather they are visual composites of the relationship between the two.
References: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.
_____. 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 figure stands in a dynamic pose with knees slightly flexed. This androgynous figure sports a European-style hat, a crescent-shaped beard, and a realistically carved penis. The figure has gracefully curved shoulders and powerful legs. The feet and the arms, originally bent at ninety degrees, have been damaged. Most Bwende figures bear forms of scarification; this figure is no exception. Ornate scarifications are carved in relief upon its abdomen and torso while lined scarifications appear across the chest and forehead and beneath the eyes, which are inlaid with white shell. Most strikingly, however, are the two large metal rods that forcefully pierce the figure's abdomen.Primary Object Classification Sculpture Primary Object TypeminkisiCollection AreaAfricanRights
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injury (medical condition)