If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Power Figure: Male (Nkisi)

Power Figure: Male (Nkisi) (Kongo peoples), 19th-mid 20th century, Kongo peoples, wood, pigment, nails, cloth, beads, shells, arrows, leather, nuts and twine, 58.8 x 26 x 25.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Beth Harris.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(light jazz music) - [Narrator] We're at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and we're looking at a Kongo nkisi figure from the Democratic Republic of Congo. - [Narrator] So the Congo is in Central Africa. It was a large kingdom that was founded in the 14th century, and over the centuries, eventually colonized by Belgium. - [Narrator] When the Portuguese who arrived in Africa in the late 15th century saw these figures, nkisi, and also brought missionaries to Christianize the people of the Congo, they asked that these figures be burned. - [Narrator] The term nkisi refers to a spirit, but more specifically, medicine, and when I say medicine, I don't mean an aspirin, I mean the herbs and supplements that a healer would use to help someone on a physical, but also on a spiritual, mental, and emotional level. The nganga is the ritual specialist among the Kongo in this period of time around the 19th century who would use nkisi figures to help his clients. - [Narrator] So the nganga would ask a sculptor to carve this, and then the nganga would use it over the course of a considerable amount of time, and over that time, this figure would accrue everything that we see on it, and all of this material is covering its abdomen where likely, although we can't see it, is a case for holding that spiritual medicine. - [Narrator] That spiritual center, the mooyo, the belly, is where you place the medicine or the materials, and it could be stone, it could be herbs, it could be paste and clays. The nganga would be mixing this formula together, placing it in the cavity in the belly, and then covering it up so that it's completely sealed. - [Narrator] So the nganga would use this figure in several different ways. He could use it to heal a client who came to him, but he could also use it to record agreements and contracts, and also could activate it to go after evildoers. - [Narrator] As a witness, the nkisi really is there to honor contracts and agreements and oaths that are taken, and the nganga might take a strip of cloth and literally tie and bind that agreement together. - [Narrator] So each one of those knots that we're seeing is likely that. - [Narrator] And in order for the nkisi to do your bidding, that is to go after someone who broke an oath or did you wrong, you might use dog's teeth or elements of birds. - [Narrator] And we see a sharp object that looks like it belonged to an animal, a bird, or a dog, that could do harm. - [Narrator] In order to activate this nkisi, 'cause really it's just a piece of wood until it's activated with a spirit, the nganga would hammer nails into its skin, thereby calling attention to the nkisi to come and do its bidding. - [Narrator] So there are so many nails. It feels like this was used over decades. - [Narrator] It constantly looks different as the nganga works, and while we see it here encrusted, and crumbling, and full of lots of materials, what it's probably missing is the medicine that was in its abdomen originally because it's said that the medicine pouch is so central and so potent you would not sell this piece or let it fall into the hands of anyone but the nganga with that present. - [Narrator] So likely it originally had legs, was able to stand, had a base. Those are not here. It's impossible to know exactly what those looked like, but the figure really is encrusted on all of its sides, but there's another example here at the MET where we can see more clearly the opening in the abdomen. - [Narrator] And we notice that the abdomen is hollow, so whatever was inside of it has been taken out, rendering it impotent. - [Narrator] We also see amulets. One of them is beaded. Another looks almost like a nut that's got some carving on the outside. - [Narrator] Seed pods, pieces of animal, carved figures, and the carved figures actually have something inside of their bellies. - [Narrator] And we seem to have two interlocking crocodiles. - [Narrator] We also have a bell on the side which is similar to the nails in that it can be rung to bring the nkisi spirit into this figure, and the nkisi would have been housed in the nganga's home in his shrine. - [Narrator] If I was a client, I would bring money or something to trade to the nganga who would do this work for me, either mark a contract or an agreement of some kind or right some sort of wrong for me. - [Narrator] And so the nganga also has to remember what each one of these nails and knots were for. The nkisi then becomes a wonderful historic, social document of a group of people who sought out help from their ritual specialist. (light jazz music)