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Power Figure


Artwork Details

Power Figure
circa 1890
wood, shells and metal
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)
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

On Display

Not currently on display


Subject 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 (pl. banganga), 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 minkisi 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. 

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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.

Usage Rights:

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