nkisi

Minkisi (sing., nkisi), also called power figures, are most closely associated with the idea of fetishism as they are material manifestations of spiritual entities. The nkisi does not represent a spiritual personality but provides a local habitation for it. As a material object, an nkisi is invoked to perform a certain duty which is attributed to it during its creation. The components that make up an nkisi are included for specific reasons and are considered "medicines" or bilongo . For example, grave dirt or kaolin from the abode of the dead addresses the power and presence of the dead in the nkisi . Other medicines which are included may ward off wrongdoers, withces, and bad dreams. Some may promote the healing of a certain disease. Minkisi are thus created according to rules both specific to any one nkisi and characteristic of the genre itself. The story of the origin of an nkisi can now be seen as a narrative of an initiation sequence rather than the random worhip of a "trifle".


No worship, prayer, or adulation is offered to an nkisi and thus is not an idol. Minkisi resolve human and cosmic dilemmas through anology and metaphor. An nkisi serves as both ritual and technical, spritual and material. This creates a confusion between the idea of the spiritual body and the profane material object, between being the subject and being the object of action. In our modern Western culture, one of the worst things you can do is to objectify someone. Because they do not coincide with the European idea of the autonomous human individual, independent of material supports, minkisi, are often described as fetishes. "Fetishism" is therefore about relations among people rather than about the objects that mediate and disguise those relations.

Images: top left and top right: Bayly Art Museum


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