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Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi)

Arts of Africa

On View: Special Exhibitions, Egyptian Galleries, 3rd Floor
This nkisi nkondi (power figure) is missing the magico-religious materials that transformed it into a vessel for a spirit. Kongo people used minkisi (singular, nkisi) for various purposes. The nkondi type generally “hunted” witches and wrongdoers. Carved by sculptors, minkisi hosted spirits only after banganga (priests) placed substances inside to empower them. Like the nearby figure of Ity-sen, this sculpture appears to have been intentionally damaged to disempower it. Empowering materials were likely removed from its head, torso, back, and eyes by someone aware of their meaning. New research conducted for this exhibition suggests it was disempowered before leaving Africa. European colonial officials feared minkisi, and felt they could dominate the Kongo region by confiscating them. But Kongo people sometimes took back control by disempowering minkisi before they were taken. So Europeans did not actually seize powerful “fetishes,” only wooden sculptures. Through this research, we now re-present this work as an example of Kongo anti-colonial resistance.

How do we know this? New research on a Kongo nkisi nkondi

This nkisi (power figure) is missing the empowering material from the top of its head, eyes, and stomach and back containers. New research conducted by this exhibition’s curator suggests this work was disempowered before leaving Africa. Close examination was made of the museum’s historic photographs, conservation records, and the work itself. Primary and secondary sources about Kongo art were also consulted. Thus, we can now re-present this work as an example of Kongo anti-colonial resistance.

Visible today, the back container lacks its mirrored cover and (most of) the organic substances that once were inside. The large mirror-covered container on the front was also missing when the Brooklyn Museum bought the sculpture in 1922 (see photo 1). The photograph also shows that the glass covering the left eye was partially missing, along with most of its resin “eyelid.” Because empowering materials often were placed behind an nkisi’s eyes, this implies that someone knowledgeable tried to remove them.

The mirrored container first appeared in a 1936 photograph, suggesting it was restored with a differently shaped replica (see photo 2). X-rays show that the front container is empty. Tests by Brooklyn Museum scientists also showed that the container was attached and painted with plaster; resin and kaolin clay would have been used in Kongo. In the 1920s, museums commonly restored “missing pieces” of works across collections. Here flaking kaolin clay was removed and the surface was smoothed, a museum practice common for African sculptures during the period.

During the colonial era, Africans actively protected their own cultures. Iconoclasm was one way to exercise their agency, removing the magical-religious substances that empowered nkisi. Archival information shows that nkisi now in the collections of other museums were subject to similar acts of iconoclasm: Kongo priests and others deactivated power figures before Europeans confiscated them.
CULTURE Kakongo artist
MEDIUM Wood, iron, glass, resin, kaolin, pigment, plant fiber, cloth
DATES 19th century, with 20th century restoration
DIMENSIONS 33 7/8 × 13 3/4 × 11 in. (86 × 34.9 × 27.9 cm) mount: 34 × 14 × 12 in. (86.4 × 35.6 × 30.5 cm)  (show scale)
COLLECTIONS Arts of Africa
CREDIT LINE Museum Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund
CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION Image of a man, stuck with nails and knives. Mirror in navel. Free carved feet standing on a block. Hands at hips. Stained white in most parts. Four flat pronged high headdress. Open mouth with teeth and tongue showing. Bracelets around biceps. Condition: Good
MUSEUM LOCATION This item is on view in Special Exhibitions, Egyptian Galleries, 3rd Floor
CAPTION Kakongo artist. Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi), 19th century, with 20th century restoration. Wood, iron, glass, resin, kaolin, pigment, plant fiber, cloth, 33 7/8 × 13 3/4 × 11 in. (86 × 34.9 × 27.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund, 22.1421. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: , 22.1421_overall_PS9.jpg)
IMAGE overall, 22.1421_overall_PS9.jpg., 2019
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