Today the Kongo are most famous for their creation of religious sculptures called power figures, or minkisi (sing. nkisi). The guiding idea behind the creation of minkisi was that powerful malevolent or benevolent forces could be manipulated into aiding humans with the solution of problems ranging from ill health, infertility, and other physical issues to misfortune and danger as well as more abstract difficulties such as asocial behavior, legal dispute and crime.
The procedure for composing a nkisi could be very complex and extend over days or weeks. A diviner (the nganga) and the other participants had to obey to a prescribed set of rules which could include dietary restrictions, the performance of chants and rhythms, as well as prayers during the creation period. The nkisi was intended as a container for specific supernatural powers and had to be inviting both on an aesthetic and mystical level. Figurative sculptures were created by professional carvers, some of whom were well known for the quality of their work. The nganga gave iconographic instructions and, upon completion, activated the nkisi through the insertion of animal, vegetable and mineral materials known as “medicines” (milongo or bilongo) that invoked through their substances, names, forms or provenance the powers the nkisi was intended to control.
The necessary animating ingredients were inserted into cavities inside the figures, often behind the eyes, inside the head or abdomen, or they were attached or suspended in pouches, neckbands, belts etc. Abdominal resin or mud packages were often “sealed” with mirror-glass imported from Europe. Once animated, the nkisi was an “alive” powerful being, analogous to a human. Each nkisi had a name and its own personality.
The most violent minkisi were called minkondi (sing. nkondi). They usually show an aggressive pose, either with one arm upraised, holding a spear, or with arms akimbo. Nails, knife blades and other pieces of iron were inserted into the sculpture in order to “arouse” the nkisi to perform the work it was intended to, but they could also represented the physical pain that the target, a human disobeying the social rule enforced by the nkisi, would experience. The more efficient the nkisi was in the solution of problems, the more often it was frequented, resulting over time in an abundance of metal pieces inserted in their body.
Power figures (nkisi) of monumental scale such as the offered lot served larger communities of one or more villages. The iconography is highly unusual: the standing figure, whose gender is not indicated, reaches with its left hand to its throat in an effort to choke itself. The strangling grip is so firm that the tongue is pushed outside of the mouth. At the same time, the figure's right hand grasps firmly around the left wrist, apparently trying to pull it away from the throat. The schizophrenic character of the scene is further developed by the seemingly emotionless facial expression, as if detached from the actions of its left and right hand.
The subject represented here seems to be a schizophrenic spirit, not dissimilar to the literary concept of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one side evil and dangerous, the other side good and protective. The difference between the figure's two sides is also emphasized by the nature of metal pieces inserted into the left and right arms, with a concentration of bent knife blades on the left and nails on the right. With an extraordinary quantity of nails and metal implements, attesting to a long period of repeated ritual use, the spirit represented by the Allan Stone nkisi must have been particularly efficacious.
Published in the landmark 1980 monograph Fétiches à clous du Bas-Zaïre, this figure was acquired by Josef Müller before 1939, and was last on the public market in 1978. A major collector of Modern art and particularly Picasso, Müller started collecting African art in the 1920s. Today his collection forms the core of the Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva. Also notable is the figure's base by the Japanese wood artist Kichizô Inagaki (1876-1951), Paris.
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