- Democratic Republic of the Congo
Artist not known, Democratic Republic of Congo
Height: 23 in. Width: 8 in. Depth: 10 in.
Denver Art Museum Collection: native arts acquisition funds, 1964.292
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
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.
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.
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.
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.