1. An Nkisi, Nails and Efficacy
As students look at the image of the nkisi (fig. 1.3) have them write down what they see. How do they describe the piece? What do they think the materials are? What size is it? What is their reaction to viewing the nkisi?
Tell them that an nkisi is often called a power figure and is made and used by peoples of Central Africa. It begins as a wooden carving. Have students make a sketch of what they envision as the unadorned wooden form of a power figure.
Further discussion about the purpose of the nkisi will call out its use as an affirmer of justice and arbitrator in conflicts, and its role in legal proceedings. In reality, it serves the well-being of a community as part of a system of justice. Does this knowledge change, in any way, their feelings about the figure?
Tell the students that the blades, spikes, and nails that are pounded into the surface of the figure aid in awakening the protective spirits and attest to oaths sworn in legal proceedings. Over time, the added metal and other substances transform the appearance of the nkisi.
Students can now interpret this process on their drawn figure, by sketching in the additions of nails, blades, and packets of medicines. Does their illustration now manifest more power?
The efficacy of the sculpture—how well it works—is demonstrated by the many additions to it. After students reiterate their first reaction to the piece, have them revisit their first impressions as they learn more about its function. What more would they want to know in order to better understand the figure? (Students can do additional research on the Kongo peoples and nkisi in general, for example.)
2. Other Minkisi, Other Forms
Minkisi (plural for nkisi) are primarily containers. They can take many shapes, be fashioned of ceramic, fabric, or wood, or see use in the retained forms of gourds, animal horns, or shells. An nkisi can be any object that can contain spiritually charged medicines or other substances.
The nkisi on display is in the form of a powerful human-like figure, but others are zoomorphic in form. Ask students to make an animal or a non-figurative work that embodies notions of power. Students should recall that the appearance of the work is an important aspect of its power. Since its function is that of a container, students could use a box, bottle, or bowl as the base of their sculpture
Diverse peoples throughout the world rely on various kinds of objects to insure their protection, prevent misfortune, and/or protect against an adversary, bad luck in general, or any negative force. Pieces of jewelry historically have served this purpose. Some Catholics carry images of saints, such as the St. Christopher medal, to insure safe traveling. In Thailand, people of all ages wear amulets of tiny Buddhas encased in gold frames around their necks. Students could design and create amulets for themselves. These may take the form of display pieces or amulets to wear.
3. Resolving Conflicts
In Kongo communities an nkisi nkondi may be used in conjunction with judicial proceedings. The parties involved and the specialist come before the figure, and together they investigate the problem at hand. When an agreement is made, representatives from both parties take an oath in front of the nkisi nkondi. Each sworn promise is recorded on the figure by the insertion of a sharp metal object or nail into its surface. How is this act similar to our tradition of signing an agreement or contract?
Have your students think of a conflict in the classroom that has not yet been resolved. They should discuss possible solutions to the problem and write a contract that seals an agreement between the arguing parties. What do they consider a probable result of breaking the contract?
Blackmun Visona, Monica, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, and Michael D. Harris, eds.
2001 A History of Art in Africa. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Blier, Suzanne Preston
1998 Royal Arts of Africa. London: Laurence King Publishing.
2001 “The Western Congo Basin” in A History of Art in Africa, edited by Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, and Michael D. Harris. 366–411. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.