All minkisi (sing. nkisi) are containers for magical substances, or"medicines," that empower them to protect the community or an individual against negative forces. They can, however, also cause misfortune, illness, and death. The containers come in a variety of forms, including cloth bundles, snail shells, clay pots, or sculpted wood figures in animal or human form. The latter type of nkisi is called a power figure. The empowering medicines (bilongo), which were made of vegetal, animal, and mineral elements including dirt from ancestral graves, may be placed atop the nkisi's head, in its belly (mooyo or life), on its back, or in any natural orifice and sealed in place with resin. Each nkisi figure has a special name, a specific pose, a particular function, and a ritual to activate it. The Dallas nkisi belongs to a class of minkisi called nkondi (pl. minkondi). The term is translated as "hunter" of wrongdoers in matters of civil law; the hunter is simultaneously chief, doctor, priest, and judge.(19) The sculpted wood form of the nkisi nkondi is studded with nails or blades that indicate how often the nkisi had been used.
This type of nkisi nkondi is intimidating: it stares at the viewer with teeth bared and stands with feet apart on separate blocks that symbolize the worlds of the living and the dead. With its arms akimbo (pakalala, hands on hips), it assumes an aggressive posture called vonganana or "to come on strong." When oaths were sworn and bonds were sealed before the nkisi nkondi, a ritual specialist-cum-healer/diviner (nganga) hammered a nail, screw, or blade into its body. This activated the spirit and medicines contained within to ensure that those who swore an oath would honor it on pain of death. The white lines under the sculpture's eyes refer to the eyes of those the nkisi will smite.(20)
This power figure is one of several large-scale sculptures brought to Europe between 1880 and 1910 (and now in public collections) that originated in a single workshop on the Chiloango River, which flows along the border of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cabinda.(21) The minkisi minkondi in this corpus were carved from a single piece of wood (22) (fig. 38) and are characterized by the realistic modeling of the body with its massive shoulders, an akimbo pose that replaced the conventional threatening pose of one hand raised brandishing a knife, an ornate chief's hat, a knotted or plain fiber skirt, staring eyes, a heavy resinous beard (a sign of seniority, wisdom, and related powers), a large cowrie shell covering the abdominal cavity containing medicine, knotted armlets squeezing the muscles just above the elbows, and feet placed on separate rectangular blocks. Most sculptures retain traces of the reddish pigment, made from pulverized camwood, that symbolizes the mediation between the living and the dead. The highly skilled and imaginative sculptors created a style for the nkisi nkondi that ensured it would fulfill another one of its functions-to astonish.
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 51, pp. 160-161.
19. Thompson, Robert F. “The Grand Detroit N’kondi.” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Art 4 (1978). pp. 206–221.
Lehuard, Raoul, “Un grand fétiche à dous des Vili au Dallas Museum of Art,” Arts d’Afrique noire, arts premiers, no. 101 (Spring 1997). pp. 22–23.
20. MacGaffey, in MacGaffey, Wyatt, and Michael Harris. Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renée Stout. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of African Art, 1993. p. 44.
21. Bassani, Ezio. “Kongo Nail Fetishes from the Chiloango River Area.” African Arts 10, no. 3 (April 1977). pp. 36–40.
Bassani, Ezio. “A Superb Kongo Figure.” In Important African and Oceanic Art. Auction catalogue, lot no. 328, November 22, 1998. New York: Sotheby’s. pp. 102-104.
This count includes seven nail figures that Bassani identified in 1997 and an additional five identified in 1998. There are twenty figures according to LaGamma, Alisa, “Mangaaka Power Figure (Nkisi N’Kondi).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 66, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 40.
22. Like the Detroit nkisi nkondi (see note 19, above, citing Thompson 1978), the Dallas figure was carved from Canarium schweinfurthii. We acknowledge the assistance of Alton Bowman, who facilitated the
analysis of the Dallas sculpture in July 2008. X-rays of the figure reveal that the cavity is filled with matter.