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Power Figure

Vili (Kongo)

Artwork Details

Power Figure
circa 1800
Vili (Kongo)
wood, tukula powder and kaolin
6 1/2 in x 3 3/8 in x 2 15/16 in (16.5 cm x 8.5 cm x 7.4 cm);6 1/2 in x 3 3/8 in x 2 15/16 in (16.5 cm x 8.5 cm x 7.4 cm)
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern


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 his 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.

This particular nkisi appears to have had a benevolent and protective function and is likely a commemorative representation of a chiefly male ancestor. Like many other minkisi, this one bears a cavity in its belly and at the back of the head, both of which held bilongo. The belly (mooyo) also means “life” or "soul" and is where bilongo was most commonly placed. The head is believed to be the site of communication with spirits who could enter through the fontanelle; placing bilongo here ensured that the fontanelle was “open,” therefore maximizing spirit interaction. There are traces of tukula, a treasured red powder made from camwood or African sandalwood, as well as kaolin, often used to symbolize the white skin of the dead, their moral rectitude, and their clairvoyance. Other elements often seen in minkisi are mirror fragments; here, it appears as if the figure’s eyes enables the nkisi to see malevolent spirits or to frighten them away through its glittered reflection.The hand-on-head pose, called kyaadi, is a sign of sadness indicating the sorrow that the deceased feels for those left behind whom he seeks to aid and protect from the afterlife.  

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Physical Description:

This figure sits serenely in a cross-legged position with one hand raised to the chin and the other resting upon on a knee. The figure's prominent rounded cheekbones, eyes embedded with pieces of mirror, large ears, and broad shoulders are typical traits seen in Vili carved figures. The figure is decorated with tukula powder and kaolin and has a worn, reddish-brown patina. The cavity at the back of the head and another in the abdomen indicate that this figure once bore potent medicinal substances and operated as an nkisi, an object of power.

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