Artist Unidentified. Tetela region (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Power Figure (Nkishi). 20th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Asif Shaikh, McLean, Virginia, BMA 2013.365.
This Nkishi (plural: Mankishi) or Power Figure, from the Tetela region, now located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is a recent addition to the BMA’s collection. This Nkishi would have been used by a diviner to connect to spirits in order to solve clients’ problems. When in use, this Nkishi was considered too powerful to safely touch with your bare hands, so it is accompanied by two sticks that were hooked onto the main body of the figure and used to carry it, protecting the handler from harm.
The Tetela Nkishi joins three other, very fine power figures (BMA 1954.145.65-67) in the BMA’s African Art collection. These Minkisi (singular: Nkisi, which has the same meaning as the Tetela Nkishi) are from the Kongo region of the DRC and will be featured in the reinstallation of the BMA’s African galleries, opening April 26, 2015. The spirits residing within the Kongo Minkisi were invoked when individuals sought a solution to a problem and needed to swear an oath as to their sincerity. One of the Minkisi (1954.145.66) bares the evidence that it was invoked many times—by driving a nail into its surface. However, this was not the only way to open communications—the BMA Nkisi in the form of a refined female (1954.145.65) would have been considered too beautiful to mar. Although the Tetela region has not been studied as much as the Kongo, the BMA’s Nkishi was probably used in a similar fashion.
The Nkishi and the Minkisi should all contain a hollow chamber that would have been filled with items to imbue the figures with their significance. The chamber in the Tetela figure should take the form of a channel from the crown of its head to its anus. To verify this, the BMA’s Conservation Department will be taking an x-ray of the Nkishi in the near future. Special days are scheduled, when a portable x-ray machine is set up in the Museum to take images of works of art. Below, you can see x-rays, taken three years ago, of the Kongo Nkisi. Different settings on the x-ray machine reveal different information. In these images, the Nikisi’s mirrored abdomen and eyes and her metal earrings appear the lightest. In the x-ray taken from the figure’s side, nothing glows white within her abdomen. This does not indicate that the hollow chamber in this figure is empty. Rather, it tells us that there is nothing of the same density as metal in the chamber—there could still be organic materials, such as wood or earth in there. Additional images at different settings could reveal a clearer image of what is in this figure. We hope to gather similar information about the Tetela Nkishi through x-ray in the near future.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.