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Power Figure

Vili (Kongo)

Artwork Details

Power Figure
circa 1875
Vili (Kongo)
wood, tukula powder, fiber, metal chain, mirror, animal horn, glass, resin and split cane
5 15/16 in x 2 9/16 in x 2 3/8 in (15 cm x 6.5 cm x 6 cm);5 15/16 in x 2 9/16 in x 2 3/8 in (15 cm x 6.5 cm x 6 cm)
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

On Display

Not currently on display


Subject Matter:

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 function either benevolently or malevolently to promote order and balance between individuals and within the community; thus, they possess the ability to heal, protect, promote success, and restore justice or to harm, inflict injury and illness, and exact revenge. Minkisi are designed, operated, and controlled by an nganga (pl. banganga), an expert healer and mediator of spirits and forces. What imbues the minkisi with power, however, is the collective, potent medicine they hold which the nganga meticulously prepares on behalf of clients. The medicinal substances, known as bilongo, include a myriad of vegetable, animal, and mineral ingredients such as seeds, leaves, shells, horns, feathers, claws, animal skins, and soil. Such ingredients were chosen for linguistic, metaphoric, and symbolic reasons rather than pharmacological ones; for example, the inclusion of a snake head would represent attacking power. These items are generally held in packets, bundles, and horns affixed to cavities or protrusions in the figure or tied around it; the absence of bilongo rendered an nkisi impotent and ineffectual.  The nganga consecrates and activates minkisi in a context often involving prayers, songs, drums, and dance. 

Here, the figure’s head is turned to its side which suggests both the ability to observe and discern as well as the quality of alertness. Its large eyes with dark pupils and the addition of mirror, the medium with which the nkisi sees, also reinforce the idea of vigilance since minkisi often function to protect individuals from potential harm. Its large eyes with dark pupils and the addition of mirror, the medium with which the nkisi sees, also reinforce the idea of vigilance since minkisi often function to protect individuals from potential harm. The long metal chain around its neck represents the nkisi’s ability to capture and restrain enemies. This figure bears a massive, protruding belly, upon which is affixed a small horn. The belly (mooyo) also means “life” or "soul" and is where bilongo was most commonly placed on minkisi. A bundle of bilongo is also found tied upon the figure’s forehead. The head is believed to be the site of communication with spirits, and therefore placing bilongo here maximized spirit interaction. 

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Physical Description:

This anthropomorphic nkisi, or power figure, stands upright with its head turned 90 degrees to the side. Like many minkisi, this one features a wide range of materials. A long metal chain hangs around its neck and a fiber packet containing medicinal substances is tied across its forehead with its loose ends dangling far below. More fiber is wrapped around its lower torso. The face features a slightly parted mouth and large eyes with attentive, black pupils. Protruding from the figure is a large, prominent belly, upon which is affixed a small horn.  

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