Nkisi Nkondi Mangaaka
Out of all the terrible consequences of the African slave trade and the forcible colonization of Africa, one of the worst is the destruction of traditional African cultures and how little is now known about them. The subtleties that went along with vari ous African peoples' cultures have largely been lost, destroyed, replaced by Western practices, or forgotten. Many traditional African religious practices are looked down on as voodoo, or are construed as misinterpretations of the preachings of Christian m issionaries.
The Kongo people of the Congo River Basin are no exception. A large amount of their art was taken to Europe in the 19th Century to be shown off as oddities from a foreign land. European collectors particularly loved carved statues that they c alled "power figures" or "nail fetishes" that were known to the Kongo people as minkisi . Europeans thought of these figures as big voodoo dolls, but minkisi are actually important and powerfully symbolic objects that played a key part in both the religion and the interpersonal relations of the Kongo people. This paper will explore how the purpose of minkisi is more than an art object, and a specific specimen, Nkisi Nkondi Mangaaka , will be examined.
Nkisi Nkondi Mangaaka is a power figure that was created in the 19th century by a tribe from the Congo River Basin region. The exact date of creation and the creator are unknown. The figure is a man carved out of hardwood. He is stout with a large head, standing with his feet should width apart and knees slightl y bent, ready to spring at any aggressors. His feet are thin and block and each one rests on its own small block of wood. His arms are bent slightly so that he rests his small hands on his hips. Two arm bands are carved on each of his upper arms. On the fi gures back, the anatomy of the spine and shoulder blades in linearly defined. A gaping cavity is carved out of the belly.
The face is characterized by linear features. The eyes are big semicircles that are painted on with white pigment. The ears are small and high up the skull. The nose and eyebrows are carefully carved with striking shapes. The mouth is open so that the figure can show off its viciously pointed teeth. A headdress or crown is carved on top of the head which shows that the figure is a perso n of status.
The most striking thing about this figure is not its aggressive stance or even the hole in its torso. Hundred of nails and shards of metal are embedded in wood of the figure. Most of the nails are concentrated in the torso of the figure, but some are embedded in the shoulders, feet, the sides of the knees, and the jawline. Almost as striking as the hundreds of nails stuck in figure's stomach is the absolute lack of nails on the back of the figure. Not one nail is embedded in the figure's back, back of his head, back of his legs, or back of his arms. Hammering nails into a power figure is an important ritual in the religion of the Kongo people, and to better understand Nkisi Nkondi Mangaaka , one must understand the rituals surrounding minkisi in general.
During the colonization of Africa by Europeans in the 19th Century, a large amount of African art was brought to Europe, but those "who collected and catalogued objects of art from Africa were not concerned with discovering the names of the art ists or even their ethnic identities" ( Bassani ). Not much is known about any specific power figure, Mangaaka included, but the general purpose of them is known.
In the religion of the people of the Congo River Basin, power figures, or minkisi (singular n kisi ), are vessels of spirits, or objects that spirits reside in. A nkisi , due to the powerful spirit trapped inside of it, is thought to be able to heal illnesses, protect against black magic, and even communicate with the spiritual world. A nkisi can be any object, but it it is carefully selected by the spiritualists