Nkisi (Power Figure)

Kalebwe Ya Ngongo

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Nkisi, also referred to as nkishi (pl. minkisi / mankishi / zinkisi) is the general name for an object containing a spirit(s). Typically, each community will have a central nkisi figure as will individuals within that community. Banganga (diviners) defend the living and the community against illness and forces from witches, improve fertility, and even provide success in specific pursuits like hunting, by making minkisi figures.

The community nkisi is used to deal with communal concerns such as crop failure, widespread illness or territorial disputes and once a year (the 1st day of the 1st quarter of the lunar cycle), all individual minkisi are placed around the community nkisi to mark the ritual celebration of mukapasu (the day associated with prosperity and regeneration).

Individuals make requests to ancestors through personal nkisi figures. The power of minkisi figures depends on the spiritual ingredients (bishimba), created by the nganga and placed within or on the figure. Bishimba is usually concealed within the abdominal cavity of the figure, in the top of the head, tied around the waist of the figure or in a horn set in the top of the figure’s head. Bishimba and offerings to ancestors can also be placed in (eyes, ears, mouth, belly) and on (chest, neck, feet) the figure by its owner. Once the purpose for which an nkisi was made has been fulfilled, the owner would either pass it on through the generations or, more commonly, the figure would be discarded.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all nkisi figures:

  • Columnar form
  • Usually in standing position
  • Symmetrical
  • Front facing (some figures turn heads to left or right)
  • Bodies are reduced to essential geometry
  • Elaborate coiffure (depicting regalia of high-ranking leaders)
  • Often bounded by a tiara-like hairline
  • Head sometimes surmounted by one or more animal horns
  • Protruding, sometimes toothy mouth
  • Cylindrical neck
  • Large powerful hands placed on either side of the abdomen
  • Symmetrically positioned arms
  • Arms bent at the elbows
  • Enlarged belly usually carved with opening at belly button (receptacle for bishimba)
  • Short, powerful legs atop large paddle-shaped feet
  • Usually standing on an integrally-carved plinth
  • Some depicted as androgynous figures (male & females organs)
  • Two headed janus figures are rare
  • Metal tacks (bishishi) refer to great powers of the blacksmith as well as to the dangerous, celestial powers of lightning1
  • Community minkisi typically "display classical Songye ideal of male leadership"4. They are usually larger than individual nkisi (typically greater than 30 inches in height)

Regional variations (Kalebwe Ya Ngongo sub-group):5

  • Hairstyle: top of head is smooth
  • Head: egg-shaped, tilting back from the chin
  • Eyes: almond shaped, eyelids of equal size / half-moon shaped, eyelids of half-moon shape
  • Nose: flattened triangular, straight bridge / diamond shaped nose
  • Mouth: horizontal figure of 8 mouth with teeth showing in some cases
  • Ears: small, natural
  • Neck: long cylindrical shape / ringed wide neck
  • Arms: two parts of arm unequal, top of arm is strong
  • Hands: circular paddle shaped hands / fingers form semi-circle
  • Torso: bulbous, rotund, drawing attention to navel
  • Back: flat, no spine or shoulder blades depicted
  • Legs: straight, flat rounded buttocks
  • Feet: resting on plinth or feet are absent
  • Plinth: cylindrical moderately accentuated sculptural relief

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