NKISI NKONDI : AFRICAN POWER FIGURES

Nkondi (plural varies minkondi, zinkondi, or ninkondi) are religious idols made by the Kongo people of the Congo region. Nkondi are a subclass of minkisi that are considered aggressive. The name nkondi derives from the verb -konda, meaning “to hunt” and thus nkondi means “hunter” because they can hunt down and attack wrong-doers, witches, or enemies.

The primary function of a nkondi is be the home of a spirit which can travel out from its base, hunt down and harm other people. Many nkondi were publicly held and were used to affirm oaths, or to protect villages and other locations from witches or evildoers. This is achieved by enlisting spiritual power through getting them to inhabit minkisi like nkondi.

The vocabulary of nkondi has connections with Kongo conceptions of witchcraft which are anchored in the belief that it is possible for humans to enroll spiritual forces to inflict harm on others through cursing them or causing them to have misfortune, accidents, or sickness. A frequently used expression for hammering in the nails into a nkondi is “koma nloka” (to attach or hammer in a curse) derives from two ancient Bantu roots *-kom- which includes hammering in its semantic field, and *-dog- which involves witchcraft and cursing. Kindoki“, a term derived from the same root is widely associated with witchcraft, or effecting curses against others, but in fact refers to any action intended to enlist spirits to harm others. If exercised privately for selfish reasons, the use of this power is condemned as witchcraft, but if the power is used publicly by a village, tribe, political leaders, or as a protective measure by innocent people, however, it is not considered witchcraft.

 

Nkondi, like other minkisi, are constructed by religious specialists, called nganga (plural zinganga or banganga). The nganga gathers materials, called nlongo (plural bilongo or milongo), which when assembled, will become the home of a spirit. Often these materials include a carved human figure into which the other bilongo are placed. The nganga then either becomes possessed with the spirit or places the finished nkondi in a graveyard or other place where spirits frequent. Once it is charged, the nkondi can then be handed over to the client. According to Kongo testimony of the early twentieth century, people drive nails into the figures as part of a petition for help, healing, or witness-particularly of contracts and pledges. The purpose of the nailing is to “awaken” and sometimes to “enrage” the nkisi to the task in hand.

Nkondi figures could be made in many forms, including pots or cauldrons, which were described and sometimes illustrated in early twentieth century Kikongo texts. Those that used human images (kiteke) were most often nailed, and thus attracted collectors’ attention and are better known today. Human figures ranged in size from small to life-size, and contained bilongo (singular longo; often translated as “medicine”), usually hidden by resin-fixed mirrors. Nkondi in the form of wooden figures were often carved with open cavities in their bodies for these substances. The most common place for storage was the belly, though such packs are also frequently placed on the head or in pouches surrounding the neck.

In most nkondi figures the eyes and medicine pack covers were reflective glass or mirrors, used for divination. The reflective surface enabled the nkisi to see in the spirit world in order to spy out its prey. Some nkondi figures were adorned with feathers. This goes along with the concept of the figures as being “of the above”, and associates them with birds of prey.

The creation and use of nkondi figures was also a very important aspect to their success. Banganga often composed the nkondi figures at the edge of the village. The village was thought of as being similar to the human body. The idea that the edge and entrances needed to be protected from evil spirits occurred in both the human body and the village. When composing the minkisi, the nganga is often isolated in a hidden camp, away from the rest of the village. After the nkisi was built and the nganga had learned its proper use and the corresponding songs, he returned to the village covered in paint and behaving in a strange manner.

The unusual behavior was to illustrate the ngangas return to the land of the living. Prior to using the nkondi, the nganga recited specific invocations to awaken the nkondi and activate its powers. During their performances, banganga often painted themselves. White circles around the eyes allowed them to see beyond the physical world and see the hidden sources of evil and illness. White stripes were painted on the participants. Often, the nganga was dressed similar to his nkondi. Banganga generally dressed in outfits that were vastly different than normal people. They wore ornate jewelry and often incorporated knots in their clothing. The knots were associated with a way of closing up or sealing of spiritual forces. – wikipedia

Nkisi nkondi power figures

Minkisi (singular nkisi), often referred to in English as “power figures,” were made by Kongo people, such as the Yombe, residing in the area now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These figures are, in effect, vessels for containing spiritual forces. When brought to life, they are believed to have the power to uncover sources of affliction, to heal, to protect, and even to punish.

A nkisi begins with a wooden sculpture, often anthropomorphic or zoomorphic in shape. Once carved, it becomes the responsibility of a ritual specialist, called a nganga, to activate the figure. The nganga fills special cavities in the sculpture, generally in the head and stomach region, with materials such as ash, soil, herbs, and animal parts that are attributed medicinal and magical properties. Over time, as clients approach the nganga seeking solutions to problems or resolutions to disputes, various objects are added to the nkisi’s exterior. In the case of the nkisi seen here, these objects include cloth strips, cowrie shells, beads, rope, and nails. As items are added to the nkisi, it becomes not only more visually complex, but also more powerful.

While only the nganga can control the supernatural power of the figure, the larger communities may participate in rituals centered on the nkisi. Certain minkisi might have specific uses. This particular figure, for instance, is believed to have served in the administration of justice. Participants in legal proceedings may have pounded in the many nails protruding from the figure either as a means of awakening the spirit within or as testimonials. Nails, which figure prominently in many minkisi, might also represent attempts to drive away destructive forces believed to be the cause of individual ailments or broader social and political ills. – the Annenberg Learner

Central African power figures are among the ubiquitous genres identified with African art. Conceived to house specific mystical forces, they were collaborative creations of Kongo sculptors and ritual specialists. This example belongs to the most ambitious class of that tradition, attributed to the atelier of a master active along the coast of Congo and Angola at the end of the nineteenth century and identified with Mangaaka, the preeminent force of jurisprudence.
That power was represented as a presiding authority and enforcing lord or king. Its crowning element is the distinctive mpu headdress worn by chiefs or priests. The figure’s posture and gesture, leaning forward with hands placed akimbo on the hips, is the aggressive attitude of one who challenges fearlessly. Traces of a missing beard-a sign of seniority-survive in the form of nails along the contours of the chin. There are also vestiges of an abdominal cavity for medicinal matter that originally attracted the figure’s defining force. The various metals embedded in the figure’s expansive torso attest to its central role as witness and enforcer of affairs critical to its community. They document vows sealed, treaties signed, and efforts to eradicate evil. Ultimately, this work inspired reflection on the consequences of transgressing established codes of social conduct.

The nkisi nkonde, functioned as a hunter-healer of conflicts. The figure was commissioned, owned, and activated by the nganga specialist, who was trained and tested as a counselor or mediator skilled in treating afflictions of the body and spirit. Nails or blades were hammered into the work to seal a vow or to awaken its power to solve a problem or dispute. – The Met

 

Sources:

  • Annenberg Learner, lerner.org, https
  • ://www.learner.org/courses/globalart/work/153/index.html
  • The Met, Power Figure (Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka), metmuseum.org, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/320053
  • Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nkondi
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