Lot: 349

Male magical figure "nkisi" / "nkishi" (pl. "mankisi" / "mankishi")

D. R. Congo, Songe, Kalebwe

Provenance Size Starting price / estimated price
in Belgium since 1920
Sotheby's, New York, 8 May 1989, Lot 79
Sotheby's, Paris, 7 December 2005, Lot 104
Jean-Pierre Jernander (1939-2015), Brussels, Belgium
H: 25.6 inch / 30.5 inch (with horn) 25000 EUR / 50000 EUR

wood, metal, animal horns and skin, nuts, plant fibre, base

Acting as intercessors between ancestral spirits and the living, "mankisi" were intended to benefit the entire community.

The creation of a "nkisi" was a public event, that brought together the community, a skilled carver and experienced "nganga". Chiefs and elders commissioned the "nkisi" and the community was responsible for cutting the tree selected for the carving. The "nganga" decided on the "nkisi’s" features and type of wood to be used, often selected for its curative or toxic properties or for being associated with certain ancestral contexts. Once the wooden form was carved, the "nganga" assembled the "bishimba", powerful matter made of animal, plant, and mineral substances. The addition of this sacred matter allowed the "nkisi" to become a conduit for spiritual forces. According to anthropologist and Songye art specialist Dunja Hersak, and based on her 1970s fieldwork in the region, the "nganga" was responsible for "bringing the spirit forces into play with the physical world" and was considered the true creator of the "nkisi".

Once completed, the "nkisi" was kept in a special enclosure positioned in a highly visible location, such as the center of the village or near the chief’s house. It was cared for by a guardian who also served as an interpreter for the "nkisi" whose messages were received through dreams or spirit possession. Collective consultations occurred following specific dreams or nightmares, and recurrently during celebrations related to the appearance of the new moon – an essential symbol of new life, fertility, and wealth associated with the human life-cycle. On those occasions, the "nkisi" was taken out of its enclosure to be recharged by the moon’s life-force. It was sprinkled with the blood of a sacrificed chicken and anointed with palm oil, giving it its distinctive shiny patina. It was carried in procession through the village but could not be touched due to its great potency, instead, wooden poles attached under its arms with raffia strings had to be used.

"Mankisi" were used for a community’s well-being, assuring fertility, protecting against illnesses, and generally keeping malevolent forces at bay. Their commissioning reflected a fear that disruptive forces would damage the village’s unity. Hersak states that "mankisi" provided the assurance of continuity and oneness in the context of drastic population decrease and disintegration of large-scale chiefships during the last three decades of the 19th century. They represented a collective identity and could survive generations. Communal "mankisi" were given honorific names and their existence was remembered well after they ceased to be used.

Hersak, Dunja, Songye, Masks and Figure Sculpture, London 1986, p. 117 ff Petridis, Constantine, Art and Power in the Central African Savanna, Brussels 2008, p. 67 ff.

ADHRC: 0040214