Sculpting and Riddles

Lesson Plan


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.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 45 minute lesson

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to:

  • discuss the challenges of sculpting a human face;
  • have the confidence to ask questions when trying to learn about something; and
  • state the purpose and method of use for the Nkisi.


  1. Warm-up: “Yes/No Riddle” Using only “yes/no questions” have students solve the following riddle: A man leaves home. He takes a right turn (pause), a left turn (pause), another left turn (pause), and one more left turn then finds himself back at home in front of a man in a mask. Where is he? (Answer: on a baseball diamond). If students know the riddle or have heard the riddle before, they can help you answer the “yes/no” questions. Encourage students to ask questions, no matter how “stupid” or far-fetched they seem, because that’s the only way they’ll solve the riddle.
  2. Give each student a block of air-dry clay and instruct them to sculpt a face using their fingers. Stress that perfection isn’t critical; encourage students to give it a go because it’s just a warm-up for later parts of the activity.
  3. When they are finished, ask them to talk about what was challenging and what was easy about sculpting the face. Have them imagine they had to carve the face out of wood. What challenges would they encounter? Would it be more difficult? Why? What advantages might carving wood have that carving the clay doesn’t have? (See if they can identify texture, color, etc.)
  4. Show students the Nkisi. In small groups or pairs, have the students imagine a story about the purpose and background of the Nkisi. Have them quickly share their stories with the class.
  5. Using the “riddle/mystery” solving “yes/no” format used in the warm-up, have the students ask yes/no questions to reveal the actual use for the Nkisi as found in the About the Art section. Share the history and use of the Nkisi with the students.


  • 12 oz. of air-dry clay for each student
  • Newspaper to cover work space
  • About the Art section on the Nkisi Nkondi
  • One color copy of the sculpture for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Nkisi Nkondi

Nkisi Nkondi


Artist not known, Democratic Republic of Congo

Who Made It?

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.



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.


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.


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.

Funding for lesson plans 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.