Community Nkisi (Power Figure) (Primary Title)

Unknown (Artist)

19th-20th century
Wood, horn, iron, copper, brass tacks, glass beads, string, hide, raffia cloth, "bishimba" (magical formula made of natural substances)
Miombe Village, Democratic Republic of Congo
Overall: 32 3/4 × 8 × 9 1/2 in. (83.19 × 20.32 × 24.13 cm)

1-The Songye create large power figures to harness beneficial powers of great ancestors. Magical ingredients, or bishimba, are packed into cavities—in this case, in the abdomen, hips, shoulders, and where the horn fits into the head. These medicines, which give the statue its potency to interact with the spirits, are inserted by a diviner.

Attachments to the figure define the status of a revered ancestor. The skirt and necklaces indicate chiefly status and the bulging abdomen is sign of well-being and procreation. The iron hoe blade in the forehead denotes metalsmithing, agriculture, and prosperity, while the copper and brass on the face and neck indicate the power to direct lightning against enemies. Finally, the animal horn projecting from the top of the head refers to the wisdom of the elders.

2-This reliquary guardian is positioned at MIDNIGHT in the life-cycle plan of the gallery.

According to the Kongo cosmogram, this stage of life is known as MUSONI and refers to midnight, existence in the other world, and eventual rebirth.

Between MIDNIGHT—the position of this ancestral figure—and NOON—the position of the king’s robe on the other side of the gallery—is an implied spiritual pathway that the Kongo call MUKULA. The axis of time, Mukula represents the corridor through which ancestor-spirits travel to assist the living.

Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund
"Arts Africains: Dans Les Collections Genevoises." Genève: Musèe d' Ethnographie de Genève. 1973.

"Arts Africains: Dans Les Collections Genevoises." Genève: Musèe d' Ethnographie, 1973. (p.108, illus. 108)

"Cultural Crossroads: A New Look at African Art." American Legacy: The Magazine of African-American History and Culture. Summer 2002. (p. 3, 17-20)

Hersak, Dunja. "Songye Masks and Figure Sculpture." Ethnographica. (p.83, fig. 63)
"Museums."Style Weekly. February 11, 2004. (illus. 243)

"The George Ortiz Collection of Primitive Works of Art." New York: Sotheby's, Parke Bernet, 29 June 1978. (Lot. No. 63)

Woodward, Richard B. African Art: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Richmond, Virginia: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2000. (p. 16-17)

Style Weekly, February 11, 2004, b&w ill. p. 43.

Richard B. Woodward, African Art (Richmond, VA: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1994) pp. 16-17, ills.

Image released via Creative Commons CC-BY-NC

Some object records are not complete and do not reflect VMFA's full and current knowledge. VMFA makes routine updates as records are reviewed and enhanced.