Authority Embodied: Nkisi

Yombe artist (Mayombe, Lower Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo), Power figure (Nkisi Nkondi Mangaaka), 19th century. Wood, shell, vegetal fiber, metal, pigment, glass. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, BelgiumKongo across the Waters notably presents a rich selection of Kongo minkisi (singular nkisi). A nkisi is a container that holds an ancestral spirit as well as empowering materials or medicines. Clients engaged a ritual expert (nganga) to compose a nkisi, insuring its effectiveness. While their formal variety was infinite, minkisi were given specific names related to their functions. A commanding life-size masterpiece whose physical presence conveys extraordinary strength and stature, Nkisi Mangaaka belonged to the most influential and ambitious class of nkisi: those invested with judicial authority. A Nkisi Mangaaka’s powers were invoked to seal important contracts, regulate trade agreements, and end disputes. The creation of Nkisi Mangaaka in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the coastal Chiloango River region coincided with a period of great tumult, as colonial authority expanded and Europeans sought control of the export trade in ivory, rubber, and palm oil. Slavery within Kongo continued, even as the international slave trade ended, in order to provide manpower for the production of these labor-intensive commodities. In response to this cultural stress, the artist from whom the nganga purchased this nkisi’s figural container developed visually forceful conventions that present Mangaaka as a chief with potent authority, able to impose social order and justice. He wears the royal cap on his head, which immediately communicates his status. The aggressive pose—his broad torso leaning forward, chin thrust out, knees bent, and arms bowed—radiates intimidation. The nganga who consecrated and empowered this work with medicines references an elder’s authority with a beard of organic matter and raffia fringe. The visual focal point, the resin pack and enormous shell on the belly, holds additional powerful medicines known only to the nganga. Each time a client petitioned Mangaaka’s force, the ritual specialist added a nail or other metal element to the sculpture, creating a bristling exterior that is also an accumulative record of power invoked. 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, minkisi were collected in large numbers by coastal traders acting as agents of new ethnographic museums. Other minkisi were abandoned by Kongolese converts to Christianity or destroyed in iconoclastic bonfires meant to eradicate their perceived pagan influence. These removals separated minkisi from their ritual experts and often eliminated their medicines, rendering them powerless. In some instances, the surfaces of the minkisi were altered. Among the fifteen other works stylistically similar to the one on view that are known to exist today, this example of Nkisi Mangaaka remains remarkably complete and in its original condition.

Holly Ross

Consulting Curator