Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi)

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Republic of the Congo

Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi), Early/mid-19th century

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

This striking figure, with its serenely rendered face and violently pierced body, was made to contain and direct a spirit in order to assist people in need. Among the Vili and other Kongo language speakers, Nkondi means “hunter” in the Kongo language and refers to the spirit’s power to track down the source of trouble. The figure’s cap and assertive pose, with hands on hips and chin thrusting forward, suggest those of a chief, and like a chief, the figure and its associated spirit were called on to enforce laws and exact punishment. The spirit was drawn into the sculpture through the application of medicinal ingredients packed in resin on its head and in the projecting box, sealed by a mirror, on its abdomen. These ingredients were selected for their associations with the ancestral world (such as earth from graves) and for their metaphorical associations with the spirit’s powers. Medicines may also have been related directly to the figure’s function; for instance, the chain may refer to the spirit’s ability to immobilize its victims. A nail or a blade was driven into the sculpture each time its force was invoked through ritual, thereby provoking the spirit into action.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2009, p. 12.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Rochester, N.Y., Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Traditional Art of Black Africa, Nov. 14–Dec. 28, 1969., cat. 62.

New York, N.Y., Pace Gallery, African Accumulative Sculpture: Power and Display, Sep. 21–Oct. 19, 1974, pp. 51, 67, fig. 103.

New York, Museum for African Art, Western Artists/African Art, May 6-Aug. 7, 1994 cat. 5; traveled to Knoxville Museum of Art, 1994-1995, Newport Beach, Calif., Newport Harbor Art Museum, July 1-Sept. 10, 1995, Sacramento, Calif., Crocker Art Museum, Oct. 27-Dec. 31, 1995.

Marseille, France, Musée d'Arts Africains, Oceaniens, et Amerindiens de Marseille, Arman et l'Art Africain, June 23, 1994–Oct. 30, 1994, cat. 55; traveled to Paris, Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie, Dec. 3, 1996–Feb. 17, 1997, Cologne, Germany, Rautenstraucht-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde, Mar.–Aug. 1997, New York, N.Y., Museum for African Art, Oct. 7, 1997–April 17, 1998 [as African Faces, African Figures: the Arman Collection, cat. 147].

Publication History

An Artist Collects, Ulfert Wilke, Selections from Five Continents, (University of Iowa, 1975), pp. 8-9. [non-traveling exhibition; mentions piece in introduction, but according to curator at U. of Iowa Art Museum, the work was not displayed in show].

Raoul Lehaurd, "Art Bakongo: Les Centres de Style," Arts d"afrique Noire 1 (1989), pp. 218-20, fig. D 1-1-2.

Warren M. Robbins and Nancy Ingram Nooter, African Art in American Collections (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), pp. 366–67, fig. 954.

Alain Nicolas and Marianne Sourrieu, Arman et l'Art Africain, exh. cat. (Paris: Reunion des Musées Nationaux, 1996), p. 106, fig. 55.

Frank Herreman, ed., African Faces, African Figures: The Arman Collection, exh. cat. (New York: Museum for African Art, 1997), p. 158, fig. 157.

Kathleen Bickford Berzock, "African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago," African Arts 32, 4 (Winter 1999), p. 32, fig. 19.

Kathleen Bickford Berzock, "Male Figure (Nkisi Nkondi)," Art Institute of Chicago, Art Insights postcard (Art Institute of Chicago, 1999).

Kathleen Bickford Berzock, "Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi)," Notable Acquisitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 29, 2 (2002), pp. 14-15 (ill.).

Katrin Adler and Christine Stelzig, “Robert Visser and His Photographs from the Loango Coast,” African Arts 35, 4 (Winter 2002), pp. 38-51.

Art Institute of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago: The Essential Guide, revised ed. (Art Institute of Chicago, 2003), p. 22 (ill.).

Art Institute of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago: The Essential Guide revised ed. (Art Institute of Chicago, 2009), pp. 9, 12 (ill.).

Ownership History

Klaus Clausmeyer (died 1958), Düsseldorf, Germany, by 1958. Ludwig Bretschneider (died 1987), Galerie Ludwig Bretschneider, Münich, Germany, by 1960; sold to Ulfert Wilke (died 1987), New York, N.Y. and Iowa City, Iowa, 1960 [see Ulfert Wilke, an Artist Collects and Wilke correspondence with Bretschneider in curatorial file]. Merton Simpson (died 2013), Merton D. Simpson Gallery, New York, N.Y., by 1971; sold to Armand Arman (died 2005), New York, N.Y. and Vence, France, 1971; sold on commission by the Donald Morris Gallery, New York, N.Y. and Birmingham, Mich. to the Art Institute, 1998.