J.D. Welch - User Experience Design

En/Gendered Power

A nkisi from the Rockefeller Collection

Minkisi (from KiKongo, sing. nkisi) are a general class of Kongo religious sculpture. Collected as "nail fetishes" by English and Belgian colonizers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these figures played an important role in a (now lost) ritual system:

The rituals for which such objects were part of the material infrastructure are no longer performed; even the vocabulary that described them is archaic and obscure. To understand what we see, we must engage in a painful archaeology of reconstruction (MacGaffey 1993:33) .

Kongo minkisi were used, in the extreme, as "self-serving attempts to improve one's lot at the expense of others (60)," and as a means for chiefs to communicate with their ancestors. The term for the spirit invoked in the divination is also nkisi (pl. bakisi), and their realm of influence constitutes specific classes . Formally, minkisi figures are assemblages of various materials bundled in bags and/or attached to carved anthropomorphic figures. As Thompson (1993) notes: "their intricacy of texture and detail (63)" contributes to "ngirukulu, 'astonishment,' in the mind of the beholder, suggesting the presence of something extraordinary (MacGaffey 1993: 63)." The "medicines" attached to the nkisi are of a more symbolic than pharmacological use, chosen more for figurative reasons:

White clay signified the white skin of the dead, their moral rightness, and their clairvoyance. It was associated with red, the color of blood…White contrasted with black, the color of witchcraft and of organic processes such as death and sex (62).

Minkisi empower the nganga (ritual specialist) to affect the lives of those who he consults with-- the chiefs who commune with ancestors to secure earthly power or the individuals who seek defense against the "witchcraft" practiced by others against them.

Minkisi are used to invoke supernatural power; a "personalized force from the invisible land of the dead (MacGaffey 1991:4)." Most commonly, this functionality includes

ending a dispute, making an agreement permanent, creating a mutual aid pact, healing oneself of an affliction, distancing or disempowering an enemy, protecting oneself against or finding out thieves, and assuring security when traveling away from home (Blier 1995:226).

The importance of minkisi is so great that the KiKongo term for the Christian concept holy is also nkisi (Thornton 1984:152). They are the most startling of Kongo religious objects, sometimes with iron spikes driven into them and open-mouthed figures staring menacingly at the viewer. Symbolic context is conveyed through materials as well as use. For example, kala zima (charcoal) is a medicine used to "strike all who are evilly disposed (MacGaffey 1991:5) and luhemba (chalk, clay) is added so
that the eyes of the nkisi are the nganga may be 'brightened,' which is why when they are preparing medicines, chalk is always the first (10).
These objects require the intervention of the nganga, to both conduct the rituals and maintain the objects. So important were nganga to religious practice that Christian priests identified themselves by the same term..


Few objects, in any culture, embody as much visual and ritual power as these objects called minkisi. These objects are startling, haunting, and beautiful and are truly amazing, even taken so far out of context as in a Western museum collection. Though not widely reproduced, a nkisi in the Metropolitan Museum's collection embodies the general assemblage aesthetic of these objects, but presents a particularly focused and interesting composition.

This particular piece looks ratty, old, tattered and generally well-used, appearing sharply different from the many of the more 'polished' African works in the Met's (and many other Western museums') collection. It is hard to assess this piece's "condition," as its used appearance may indicate a great deal of ritual use, leaving the piece looking like it's about to fall apart, covered with dirt, clay, blood, etc. However, as the anthropomorphic figure has retained many of its' useful "medicines" (i.e. myriad attached objects of ritual significance) after Western collection, it is reasonable to suggest that the piece is in wonderful shape for study, as a great deal of the original formal elements are extant. The piece is, however, missing feet and thus seems to float its current clear Plexiglas support.

The nkisi is of modest size, measuring about fifteen inches tall and taking the general form of a male human being, adorned with various materials, including striped fabric, beaded pouches, cowerie shells, beads, raffia, etc. bound with hanging from the base wooden figure. This figure itself is relatively straightforward, devoid of emotion in the face and posture; eyes closed, lips pursed, almost shocked by its lot, including the ritually significant and seemingly violent driving of nails into the object.

Out figure looks weary for the road, yet stoic and composed, burdened as he is with a large cross, a couple of smaller (carved, wooden) anthropomorphic figures and a thick garment-like layer of fabric and leather, cut in small strips, covering the figure from neck to calves. The extent and intricacy of these added elements contrasts with the basically inert figure that is laden with this disparate stuff. Most intriguing of these accoutrements is the cross form, dangling from the neck via a complex arrangement of beaded strands. Carved in dark wood, shiny, and presented with two cowerie shells fixed to it (is it an upside -down crucifix?), this detail makes the piece particularly striking with it's allusion to the Christianity of the old Kingdom of Kongo, referenced in a relatively contemporary piece.

These medicines are, of course, the most significant elements in the composition (as they contribute to the fabulous and distinct aesthetic of this artform) and are most significant in the functional use of this object. The 'weary expression' of the figure may have nothing to do with its 'meaning' at all, and is probably just a coincidence.

Overall, minkisi make for exciting sculptures, but this piece with its nearly uniform fabric covering provides an uncluttered stage for the large medicines, which are interesting and substantial art works on their own. This nkisi makes its presence in the gallery known: dynamic, stoic, visually, powerful and ritually significant personification of empowered sculpture.

I would now like to shift to examine the broader implication of these objects, specifically the more theoretical implications of these works of art in the context of a gendered rhetoric of cosmology, production and consumption.
In most societies, and sub-Saharan Africa in particular, artistic production is sharply divided along gender lines. In the case of the minkisi, the objects are created and used by men. Adams (1980) goes so far as to characterize "the production by men of human imagery in wood as parallel to women's giving birth (164)." This assertion could readily be applied to the minkisi form, as these objects are often regarded as living, active and having many human characteristics.

So where do women figure into the production/activation and use of these objects? They are the subjects of several types of nkisi and are also clients of the nganga. Regarding the pared male/female figure nkisi form called Mukimbanga, a native commentator writes: "the powers of the male are more vigorous, but the female softens them (MacGaffey 1993:36)." This piece is of the nkondi group-objects associated with the hunting of witches and those who break contracts (1991:141)." In the paring of male and female figured-literally binding them together in this case-the widespread cosmological complementarity of the genders is depicted. Another nkondi, Mayombe, takes a more dramatic form, with iron spikes driven into the anthropomorphic female figure "so that Nkondi may be angry on account of its wounds and work vigorously in the body of its victim (144)." While it seems significant that these powerful figures are female, the Nkondi also take the form of men with spears and double-headed dogs. It is unfortunately unclear from my research just what significance lies in depicting women as nkondi.

Nkisi Lunkaka, conversely, is a nkisi that takes the form of a female for a specific symbolic/ritual reason. The name means "menace" and the addition of a simple trumpline (cord used by women to carry heavy loads) takes on a highly charged meaning:

The reason that Lunkaka includes a trumpline is that it is one of the victims that she promises. Just as the trumpline is twisted, so will she twist her victims' necks; and as burdens are carried in a basket on the back, so will she carry off the life of a living man (1993:82-3).

These two divergent depictions of women, one soft and tempering, the other fierce and violent give interesting insight into the range of experiences that these objects control. Women are consumers of these objects and are at least affected by their use by others. Issues such as fertility, adultery and witchcraft are diagnosed, healed or attacked in rituals that employ minkisi.

Unfortunately, the literature on these objects is sparse; the tradition is virtually lost. Most data on the objects comes from the work of Karl Laman, who collected objects and explanations from local sources. Naturally, all of his informants were male, so the question is raised: to what extent did women participate in the use of these objects. As MacGaffey writes, women "from important lineages were able to take minor titles and become priests of many minor and some major charms, either as principals or as necessary assistants to men (1986:30)." At the risk of vastly oversimplifying, it is interesting to consider the role of women as Vodou (the new world incarnation of Kongo religion) priestesses and consider if women had a similar role in the original tradition as operators of minkisi. I have no hard and fast evidence to support this, but I think it is an intriguing possibility.

Cloaked in mystery, decomposing in museums, minkisi are a particularly elusive ritual artform. Reconstructing data from old ethnographic accounts, MacGaffey has tried to piece together an art history of the minkisi and has given us a wealth of information to go from. However, the question of women's roles as the subjects of these objects and their role in their ritual use remains. Perhaps, as more research is done, we can uncover information that can explain these tantalizing issues.


Adams, Monni. 1980. "Afterward: Spheres of Men's and Women's Creativity." Ethnologische Zeitschrift Zurich I.

Blier, Suzanne Preston. 1995. The Royal Arts of Africa. New York: Abrams.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. 1993. "The Eyes of Understanding: Kongo minkisi." Astonishment and Power. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

1991. Art and Healing of the BaKongo, Commented by Themselves: Minkisi from the Laman Collection. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

1986. Religion and Society in Central Africa. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
1983. Modern Kongo Prophets. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Thompson, Robert Farris.1993. "Illuminating Spirits: Astonishment and Power at the National Museum of African Art." African Arts 26 (4).

1983. Flash of the Spirit. New York: Random House.

1981. The Four Moments in the Sun. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.

Thornton, John K 1984. "The Development of the African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo." Journal of African History 25.

Portions of this paper are taken from these previous manuscripts:

Welch, J.D. 2000. "Constructing Power: Assemblage and Personal Empowerment." Rpt. here

1999. "Christian Influence on Kongo Religious and Royal Arts."
Rpt. here