Nkisi Nkondi

mid 1900s

Object

Culture

  • Kongo

Country

  • Democratic Republic of the Congo

Object Info

Object: figure
Not currently on view
Object ID: 6CF5C22A-4726-4C75-A90F-3F615C6A35DF

About

About the Artist

This sculpture comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. We do not know the name of the sculptor who carved this particular object. An nkisi [en-KEE-see] is the result of a collaboration between a sculptor and an nganga [en-GONG-ga]. An nganga is a ritual specialist, a healer, and a mediator. Upon request, a sculptor would carve an nkisi in the form of a man, woman, or animal. Whatever the form, it is crucial that the figure suggests aggressiveness. Protruding tongue, hands on hips, wide eyes, and an open mouth are common aggressive details used by sculptors. Once the sculpture was completed, the nganga performed rituals and attached objects to enhance the nkisi’s power.

What Inspired It

This nkisi is a device, record keeper, or tool for dealing with social issues. Minkisi (plural) have both public and private functions. Historically, they were used by individuals, families, or whole communities to destroy or weaken harmful forces, prevent or cure illnesses, ward off bad deeds, solidify contracts or oaths, and resolve arguments. Nkisi are intended to create a frightening effect; it is the sculptor’s job to create an image that implies force.

Ritual experts, or nganga, mediated between conflicting parties and aided individuals seeking help. In the case of a dispute, a representative from each side of the conflict would hammer a piece of metal into the nkisi figure. In disputes over land, for example, sealing an oath by hammering a nail into the nkisi would be sufficient to secure the land for generations. Contracts and personal vows could also be confirmed in this manner. A person’s word was sealed by attaching a personal item, usually drawn from their body—a piece of cloth, hair, or even saliva—to the nail or blade before it was hammered into the figure. Each party is then bound to honor the terms of the agreement. Nganga would memorize the circumstances attached to each nail and blade. In cases where an nganga was asked to cancel a vow, it was crucial not to remove the wrong nail, since each nail concealed an oath or agreement.

Wood
Wood

This figure is carved from wood that now appears to have some termite damage, particularly on the body. There are very faint traces of color on the face in black, white, and yellow. Thin lines have been carved above the eyes to form eyebrows.

Size
Size

In general, minkisi vary in size. This sculpture is about two feet tall. Smaller sculptures were owned by individuals, while life-size figures belonged to a village or community.

Male Figure
Male Figure

This nkisi is carved in the form of a male figure. Not all nkisi are male, some are carved in the form of women and others appear to be animals. The figure’s knees are bent and he is missing his arms and hands. His mouth is slightly pursed and it looks as though his eyes are closed.

Nails
Nails

Sculptures were activated by driving nails or other pieces of metal into them. The nkisi would recognize the parties involved by traces of their saliva or other personal items attached to the metal.

Teaching Resources

Quick Classroom Ideas

  • Show children the Nkisi and explain how termites have damaged some of the wood. Explain to the class what termites eat and have them place a marker on all the things in the classroom that could be eaten by termites. Make it a race!
  • Show students the Nkisi and explain how this type of object is used to make treaties. Allow students to assemble into groups of two or three and make a promise (treaty) that they agree to adhere to for the rest of the year. Have them write it on a piece of card stock and tack it to a group board displayed at a prominent place in the room.
  • Sculpting and Riddles
    Lesson Plan

    Sculpting and Riddles

    Elementary (grades K-5)
    One 45 minute lesson

    In this lesson students will first have a go at sculpting a face and compare their efforts to the face of the Nkisi. They will then put on their thinking caps to solve the “riddle” of the Nkisi.

    More
  • Resolving Conflict Creatively
    Lesson Plan

    Resolving Conflict Creatively

    Secondary (grades 6-12)
    Two 50 minute lessons

    In this lesson students will have an opportunity to apply journalistic writing skills and their imaginations as they “report” on actual conflicts and write about how they imagine the conflicts would be resolved using the Nkisi Nkondi.

    More

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.