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

Yaka power figure (Nkisi) #2

Catalog Number: E003


18.0 x 10.0 x 9.0 cm


7.0 x 4.0 x 3.5 in


Religion and Denomination: Congo (West-Central Africa)
Transatlantic Family of Religion: Nkisi
Country of Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Ethnographic Origin: Yaka (West-Central Africa)
Materials: Beads
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 machine-knitted cloth, 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.

This nkisi‘s baldric of shells may refer to a dress worn by a female dancer; snail shells are found on minkisi of fertility and healing. However, the color red on the bandolier typically indicates maleness, authority, law, and control of upper-body ailments and bad dreams. Feathers, such as those on the figure’s hands, likewise refer to the living world and to warfare. Indeed, the figure’s pose is similar to that of many warrior minkisi, whose raised right hands were intended to hold a weapon. 

Examples of minkisi or similar power objects have been unearthed by archaeolgoists 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 and enquisos 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.