Vili-Kongo
Republic of the Congo
Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi)
Early/mid-19th century

Wood, metal, glass, fabric, fiber, cowrie shells, bone, leather, gourds, and feather
H. 72 cm (28 1/3 in.)
Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment, 1998.502

This visually powerful sculpture once belonged to a ritual specialist who used it as a tool to control and contain a spiritual force. The force was drawn to the figure by the application of medicines packed in resin on its head and in the projecting box, sealed by a mirror, on its abdomen. In the Kongo language, spiritually invested objects are called minkisi (singular, nkisi). This nkisi is also called nkondi, or hunter, referring to its power to aggressively track down offenders. The iron chain, cowrie shells, bone, and small calabashes strung around the figure enhance its ability to attract a spirit and may be connected to a specific problem that its power was called on to resolve. A nail or a blade was driven into the figure each time its spiritual force was invoked.

The Kongo people of the Democratic Republic of Congo used minkisi for centuries as tools for curing illness, punishing criminals, combating witchcraft, or solving other problems. The physical form of a nkisi—whether an embellished container or a finely sculpted figure—and its surface decoration can indicate if it is meant to harm or help. Some minkisi were called on to affect a result through violent means, and others were understood to act more kindly. The specific form that a nkisi takes is less important than the medicine created for its use, but the visual impact of a skillfully rendered figure such as this object adds to its ritual power.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Portuguese, French, and Belgian colonizers seeking control of the Kongo region encountered minkisi as weapons of resistance. Missionaries coerced or stole them from communities to remove their perceived pagan influence, at times even destroying them. Military commanders captured the figures to squelch local empowerment. Most minkisi now found in museum collections left the region during this period. Today the beliefs that underlie the use of minkisi are still prevalent in the Kongo area; however, minkisi no longer take the elaborate figural forms of the past.