In Focus

Standing Power Figure (nkisi nkondi)

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 simulatenously chief, doctor, priest, and judge. 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 refers to the eyes of those the nkisi will smite.

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. The minkisi minkondi in this corpus were carved from a single piece of wood 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 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.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 160.