At over three feet tall, this nkisi (in-KEE-see) nkondi (in-CON-dee) sculpture, with its aggressive stance and huge, staring eyes, is a power figure who oversees matters of civil law. All minkisi (plural of nkisi) are designed to inspire awe and to mediate between the living and the spirit worlds.
Each nkisi is associated with a specific name, pose, and function. A ritual activates it. Frequently, special medicines, or bilongo (bee-LAWN-go), made of vegetal, animal and mineral elements such as dirt from graveyards were inserted by a ritual specialist (nganga) into the figure’s resin-covered abdominal cavity and in its beard to give the figure power. Each nail protruding from this nkisi’s chest was driven into the figure by a ritual specialist to seal an agreement or vow among members of the Yombe (YOM-bay) community. This action activates the spirit and medicines in the nkisi, empowering the figure and ensuring that those who swore an oath, honored it.
All minkisi are containers for magical substances, or “medicines,” which empower them to protect the community or an individual against negative forces. Minkisi (singular: nkisi) may also cause misfortune and illness. They come in a variety of forms, including cloth bundles, snail shells, clay pots, or sculpted wood “power figures” in animal or human form. Each power figure has a special name, specific pose, a particular function, and a ritual to activate it. The Dallas Museum of Art nkisi belongs to a class of minkisi called nkondi (in-CON-dee). The term nkondi can be translated as “hunter” of wrongdoers in matters of civil law; the hunter is simultaneously chief, doctor, priest, and judge.
The empowering medicines, made of vegetal, animal, and mineral elements (including dirt from ancestral graves), may be placed atop the nkisi’s head, in its belly, on its back, or in any natural orifice and sealed in place with resin. Minkisi can also be given the power to cause misfortune, illness, and death by ritual specialists.
is meant to intimidate. With its arms akimbo (hands on hips), it assumes an aggressive posture called vonganana
or “to come on strong.”
When oaths were sworn and bonds were sealed before the nkisi nkondi in a mambu, or law court, a ritual specialist hammered a nail, screw, or blade into its body to activate the spirit and medicines contained within, and to ensure that those who swore the oath would honor it on pain of illness or misfortune. The sculpted wood form of the figure is studded with nails or blades which indicate how often the nkisi has been used.
This power figure is one of several large-scale sculptures brought to Europe between 1880 and 1910 that originated in a single workshop on the Chiloango River, which flows along the border of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cabinda.
The sculptures from this workshop were each carved from a single piece of wood and are characterized by the realistic modeling of the body with its massive shoulders, akimbo pose, chief’s hat, a knotted or plain fiber skirt, staring eyes, a heavy resinous beard that signifies seniority and wisdom, a large cowrie shell covering the abdominal cavity containing medicine, knotted armlets, and feet placed on rectangular blocks.
The materials used to create this nkisi are meant to suggest great power and express the figure’s roles within the earthly and spiritual realms.
The iron nails and blades piercing the wooden torso of the nkisi are evidence of the contract ritual associated with the figure. They were said to activate the figure’s power ensuring that an oath made before it, was kept. Resin, a sticky substance produced by trees, was used to make the beard (a sign of seniority and wisdom) and belly pouch of the nkisi. Additional medicinal materials were added to the resin to empower the figure. The decoratively incised mpu (im-POO), or chief’s hat, on the nkisi’s head shows the authority of the figure while the skirt, made of raffia fibers, communicates the figure’s connection to the Yombe peoples.
Detail of nkisi nkondi's resin beard. Detail of nails and blades piercing nkisi nkondi's chest. Detail of nkisi nkondi's raffia fiber skirt.
The gleaming white surfaces of the nkisi’s ceramic eyes are meant to allude to the nkisi’s ability to see into the next world while the kaolin clay, a white mineral forming parallel lines under the eyes, represent the tears of the person who breaks a promise made before the figure. The vertical red stripe under the eyes is made from pulverized wood of the inner camwood tree called tukula (TOO-koo-lah) and symbolizes the figure’s ability to mediate between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The blocks beneath the nkisi’s feet also suggest the figure’s role as a mediator between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Detail of nkisi nkondi's eyes. Detail beneath the blocks under nkisi nkondi's feet.
A gigantic, imported, glossy, white cowrie shell seals the resin-covered cavity in the belly containing the medicinal contents, and perhaps indicates the importance of the contents within it. These shells were widely used as a form of currency in Africa and enhance the nkisi’s power.
Detail of giant cowrie shell sealing nkisi nkondi's resin covered cavity.
Two hundred thousand Yombe peoples live in the mountainous forest and savannahs of western Democratic Republic of the Congo, subsisting by farming, hunting, and raising animals. Their society is ruled by male chiefs who inherit their position through a matrilineal link. The Yombe peoples are well known for their “power figures,” which hold ritual medicines and are embellished with mirrors and nails. The Yombe also forge iron, weave raffia, and carve wooden animal masks for ceremonial traditions related to agriculture and herding.
 Siroto, Leon. “The Face of the Bwiti.” African Arts 1, no. 3 (Spring 1968).
1. The nkisi nkondi is a power figure. How does the figure’s body and body language communicate power?
2. Look carefully at the sculpture and make a list of all of the materials used. As you look, consider the following clues about the meaning of the various materials and parts of the sculpture.
a. These objects are driven into the figure to seal an agreement.
b. These tell the figure is looking into the spirit world.
c. This shows that this object is communicating with the ancestors.
d. This piece of clothing with a zigzag pattern shows that the figure must be a chief.
e. This round form with a large cowrie [COW-ree] shell in it holds special materials such as earth from gravesites.
3. The action of pounding a nail into this figure sealed a contract or agreement. What actions are you familiar with that represent the sealing of a deal or agreement? Of these various actions, which seem more serious or formal to you and why?
4. What other religious or spiritual traditions have been established to hold individuals accountable for their actions? How do these traditions function similarly to or differently from this nkisi?
5. In part, this nkisi’s powerderives from the belief that consequences will occur if an oath or agreement is not fulfilled and honored. Consider your own life experiences, or that of your friends. Are people more likely to respond to punishments for bad behavior or rewards for good behavior?
6. In our society, there are a number of implicit agreements that do not require formal contracts. (For instance: Every student knows that he or she is required to do homework or stay seated in class even if it is not in a written contract.) How do we decide which agreements should be formalized by contracts and which are better left to individuals?
The contemporary artist Renee Stout is inspired by Kongo ancestral figures. In her sculpture Fetish #1
, she is influenced by power figures like this nkisi nkondi.
In what ways is Stout’s sculpture similar to or different from the nkisi nkondi?
2. This nkisi takes on an aggressive posturecalled vonganana by the Yombe. Find a partner and take turns posing for each other. When you are not posing, write down some words describing your partner’s stance. Then, switch with your partner. When finished, share your words with the rest of the class.
|Curator Roslyn Walker discusses this nkisi nkondi figure.|
Attenborough, David. The Tribal Eye. New York: WW Norton and Co., 1976.
MacGaffey, Wyatt and Michael D. Harris. Astonishment and Power. Washington: Published for the National Museum of African Art by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
Bassani, Ezio. “A superb Kongo figure,” Important African and Oceanic Art. New York: Sotheby’s, November 22, 1998.
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Stancioiu, Cristina. “The Nkisi Nkondi,” Dallas Museum of Art: 100 Years. Dallas, 2003.
Thompson, Robert F. and Joseph Cornet. The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1981.
Walker, Roslyn A. The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
Access broad resources and information about Africa.
Learn fun facts about Africa on this Web site from the California Academy of Sciences.
View works of art up close and learn more about African life by visiting this Web site from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Find out more about the diversity of African art by visiting the National Museum of African Art’s Web site.
Find out more about Africa on this PBS Web site.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”