Spotlight on the Collection

February 2013: Power Figure (Nkishi)

Power Figure (Nkishi). Songye people, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lubao Territory, early 20th century. Wood, hide, horn, metal, fiber, glass beads. 35 × 7 1/2 × 8 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Birmingham City Council through the Birmingham Arts Commission, and the Endowed Fund for Acquisitions, 1989.64.

Power Figure (Nkishi). Songye people, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lubao Territory, early 20th century. Wood, hide, horn, metal, fiber, glass beads. 35 × 7 1/2 × 8 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Birmingham City Council through the Birmingham Arts Commission, and the Endowed Fund for Acquisitions, 1989.64.

Power Figure (Nkishi), Songye People

Every culture has idea about power and how to represent it. Some may define power as physical strength; others may conceive of it as the ability to change and influence people; still others may describe it as a spiritual quality. For the Songye people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the latter idea of power was an essential part of their culture. The Songye – as well as other peoples in the Southern Savannah region of Africa – used minkishi (singular nkishi) to capture that power for the benefit of the tribe, such as protecting the village from illness or outside aggression.

The Songye understood negative power in two ways. The first, buci, was a power much like witchcraft with which an individual was born, transmitted from mother to child. They believe it to reside in an individual’s heart or stomach, and he or she could control it internally. An individual gained the second form of negative power, masende, from ancestors or other deceased members of the tribe. Benevolent nkishi figures helped protect the Songye from both of these forces.

To make a nkishi, an artist first carved the wooden exterior form into poses meant to appear threatening or aggressive to malevolent spirits. The sculptor then turned it over to a nganga, or ritual specialist, who adorned it with decorative objects made of natural minerals and animal or vegetable parts. Finally, to formulate its powers, the nganga concealed bishima, or spiritually meaningful ingredients, somewhere inside the figure – usually in the stomach or a horn affixed to the figure’s head.

The significance of nkishi resided in their mystical qualities and the purpose they served an individual or the community. The potential of a nkishi depends on objects the nganga distributed throughout. These materials transform it from an idle figure to a powerful spiritual tool. The decorative objects on the exterior are practical rather than aesthetic. For example, the nails piercing many minkishi represent and extend their magical forces.

Smaller minkishi typically belonged to individual households for private use, while larger ones usually protected the community as a whole. The community usually kept the latter hidden from view, allowing only Songye priestesses to access them. The protective power emitted by these figures represent both the safety and the benevolent protection of Songye society.

—Leta Woller, education – visitor engagement intern 2012-2013

Join the Conversation!

How do you define power? Power can be understood in different ways, and people may go to extremes to achieve it. Consider rulers that have taken power through upheaval, such as Fidel Castro and Joseph Stalin; compare and contrast with leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who promoted power through nonviolence. Also take into account objects like minkishi that possessed spiritual power over evil forces.

Take a look at these works from the BMA and beyond and join the conversation!

Grand Canyon, Yellowstone River, Wyoming, William Louis Sonntag, Sr., 1886

Last Judgement, Leandro dal Ponte, called Leandro Bassano (about 1595/6-1605)

“Morsy using ‘language of a dictator’: President Morsy’s new decree allows him to wield more power than Mubarak, says Egypt opposition leader Mohammad ElBaradei”, CNN, November 23, 2012

“Martin Luther King, Jr.-Influence of Ghandi and Nonviolence,” YouTube

“Gandhi- The Philosophy of Nonviolence,” YouTube

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