Activating Divine Forces

Artist unknown (Yombe peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo)
Power figure (nkisi nkondi), 18th – 19th century
Wood, iron, copper alloy, mirror, cloth, cordage, glass beads, cowrie shells (Cyprarea moneta)
Fowler Museum at UCLA, X65.5837; Gift of the Wellcome Trust

About the Artwork

This nkisi nkondi acts as an armature for a large array of materials, added by a healer who alone knew the secret composition of herbal medicines, roots, plants, and even small carved wood sculptures that gave the figure its efficacy. Staring eyes chipped from mirrors warned aggressors and deflected their malice, while potent substances held in a bundle over the navel were hidden from view by the cape of cloth strips. The nkisi spotlights iron’s empowering roles, as the many forged shards, blades, tools, and nails directed supernatural powers to human desires and needs. Each iron piece was hammered in to awaken the spirits present in the sculpture and direct them to solving personal and community problems. Such a figure became an archive of intentions, as the scraps of cloth, iron, shells, and beads served as reminders of people’s requests for help from the spirit world.

Looking Closely: Examining Expressions

  • While looking closely at this artwork, pay attention to what items you recognize on the nkisi’s body. What items do you see on the nkisi’s body?
  • When people sought help from the nkisi, they would document their request by leaving something small—such as a scrap of fabric—with the figure. This exchange could be considered a social contract.
    Why might it have been important for someone to leave something of theirs with the figure?
  • Consider what resources are available if you need help solving a problem. What do these resources look like?
    Would others know if you used them? If so, how does this impact your willingness to seek help?