Power Figure (Nkishi)
Arts of Africa
While Western collectors value the visual impact of power figures, the ultimate importance of these sculptures to the Songye lies in their effectiveness as protectors of the community from malevolent forces and disease. The power of such figures depends on their ingredients (bishimba), concealed in the abdominal cavity, in the top of the head, or in a horn set into the cranium (missing from this piece). These hidden substances acquire potency and interact with the spirit world when assembled by the nganga, or ritual practitioner.
Wood, raffia, metal, cloth, leather, horn, beads
late 19th or early 20th century
30 x 12 x 14 3/4 in. (76.2 x 30.5 x 37.5 cm)
Museum Collection Fund
Wooden figure with large head, protruding abdomen and no visible feet. The arms are at sides, hands holding belly. The figure is covered with numerous additions: a bandana-style headdress of animal skins hangs down the neck. A rope with amulets circles the head, while the neck holds five bands of various materials and thicknesses. One of these supports two interlocked rings: one of metal, the other a doughnut shaped padded leather (?) ring. The chest is surrounded by five thin twisted ropes. A voluminous skirt covers the lower torso. Many-layered cloth and leather strips, wooden dowels and a metal bell are suspended from a heavy, twisted belt. The front of the torso shows two thin metal rectangles protecting materials inside the abdominal cavity. They are nailed into place. The same technique is used on the face to decorate the nose and forehead. Tooled leather (?) strips decorate cheek and chin. Eyebrows are outlined with nail heads above large heavy-lidded eyes. The pursed mouth shows protruding organic material.
This item is not on view
Songye. Power Figure (Nkishi), late 19th or early 20th century. Wood, raffia, metal, cloth, leather, horn, beads, 30 x 12 x 14 3/4 in. (76.2 x 30.5 x 37.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 50.79. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 50.79_threequarter_PS1.jpg)
threequarter, 50.79_threequarter_PS1.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2007
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Tell me more about this power figure!
This power figure would be used by an entire community for protection. As instruments of protection and healing, the aesthetic characteristics are secondary to their effectiveness. Their effectiveness isn’t determined by the carving but rather by what combination of powerful ingredients (bishimba) are inserted into them by ritual specialists (nganga).
The raffia skirt and leather headdress symbolize the formal attire of chiefs, and thus help augment the spiritual power of the bishimba inside the figure. There are even snakeskins draped like necklaces, which likely serve to further emphasize the danger of the nkishi, helping it to counteract malevolent forces.