Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Yaka power figure (Nkisi) #1

Catalog Number: E015


Unknown Yaka carver and unknown Yaka priest


8.65" x 4.78" x 2.71"

219.79 mm x 121.30 mm x 68.85 mm

Religion and Denomination: Congo (West-Central Africa)
Transatlantic Family of Religion: Nkisi
Country of Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Ethnographic Origin: Congo (West-Central Africa)
Materials: Camwood powder
Usage: Ritual (used)
Detailed Description of Significance:

The Yaka people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo had a long history of contact and interaction with the Kongo ethnic group, and the two peoples’ religions were similar in many respects. One such overlap was in the nkisi (plural minkisi) power figure.

The bulbous central part of the figure, wrapped in cloth and bound with string, likely houses Yaka medicinal substances. One possible ingredient may be earth from the grave of an ancestor of the creator or user, whose spirit may be represented. Many minkisi have a raised crest at their apex, which users equated to a “navel of the head”; through this the mundane and spirit worlds were connected and mediated.

Feathers, such as those on the figure’s hands suggest readiness for conflict and warfare. Indeed, the figure’s pose is similar to that of many Kongo warrior minkisi, whose raised right hands were intended to hold a weapon. It is possible this nkisi once held a dagger or spear that has since been lost.

Examples of minkisi or similar power objects have been unearthed by archaeologists on the sites of North American plantations, suggesting that captives from Africa carried such practices with them. Today, practitioners of Afro–Diasporic religions use power objects with characteristics similar to Kongo minkisi. Examples include the pakèt kongo of Haitian Vodou and the prendas andenquisos of Cuban Palo Mayombe, or Palo Monte. Practioners point to such objects as examples of knowledge directly imparted from ancestors who were carried to the New World during the slave trade, an attitude echoed by many scholars. Another interpretation is that such New World power figures are unique types inspired by African counterparts.

Catalogued by Annabelle Yang:

Minkisi – or, singularly, nkisi – are figures of power created by the peoples of West-Central Africa. They house spirits of the dead or, more broadly, spirits from nature, who can be called upon by specialists known as banganga (singular, nganga) in various rituals. Minkisi are highly varied in form and function. They can be used for divination, the acquisition of wealth, aggression, and, of course, healing. Each nkisi addresses a specific type of ailments, and its nganga must follow specific taboos in crafting the nkisi. In this way, a relationship is established between nganga and the spirits, mediated through the nkisi. The Yaka people also realize that disease can derive from other people’s evil wishes or curses. Among the BaKongo, one of the services a nganga can provide, indeed, is the identification of ndoki, or sorcerers, who cause harm by “eating” the souls of family members.

Rene Devisch writes that an nganga of the Yaka people would construct a nkisi for a patient in order to attack, or even kill, an aggressor who has caused the patient’s condition. A variety of other components, such as gunpowder, might also be used in the construction of such a nkisi in direct metaphorical reference of the power object’s power to defend and to destroy.