Democratic Republic of the Congo
Personal Power Figure (Nkishi/Nkisi)

A Songye diviner (nganga), in addition to designing and empowering a community nkishi/nksis (plural,
mankishi) for the protection and well-being of all the members of a village, may prescribe a smaller nkishi for
the private use of an individual, customized to his or her personal needs. Individuals direct prayers to
ancestral spirits through personal mankishi for many different reasons. While some seek protection for
themselves and their families, others may appeal for success in pursuits that affect their livelihood, such as
hunting. The most common need they address, however, is an individual woman's desire to have children and
to prevent miscarriages. Thus, a woman may commission an nkishi that is designed specifically to enhance
her potential to conceive. Personal mankishi may also be incorporated into efforts to heal other ailments.
Once an nganga effectively treats a patient with herbal medications, he may prescribe the commissioning of
such a work as a form of protective reinforcement.

Consequently, the rituals that are essential for the creation and use of personal mankishi relate to the specific
needs they fulfill in the lives of their owners. These privately commissioned works are usually not publicly
accessible but are kept in their owners' homes. In order to motivate the ancestors to provide assistance in a
personal crisis, suppliants offer prayers and sacrifices to them. To mark the occasion of mukapasu, the first
day of the first quarter of a lunar cycle, all the villagers take their personal mankishi and place them around
the community nkishi, and these become the focus of ritual proceedings led by the nganga. This celebration of
the reappearance of the moon is associated with prosperity and regeneration.

The scale and aesthetic form of the nkishi shown here reflect its role as a personal devotional object.
Whereas all community mankishi display a classical Songye ideal of male leadership, smaller customized
works of this kind show a far greater range of idiosyncratic designs. Within this more eclectic genre of
representations, though, the level of aesthetic accomplishment demonstrated by the various artists' handling
of sculptural form is less consistent than for community mankishi, which are usually commissioned from artists
with regional reputations.

The surface of this male figure is almost entirely engulfed in metal tacks, a systematic obscuring of the figure's
head and body that gives it a wild, unruly appearance. However, their absence in areas such as the eyes and
mouth makes those features look like especially deep recesses. Where "medicines" (bishimba) were once
inserted, an empty cavity is evident in the area of the stomach. Alan Merriam has recorded that the explicit
carving of male or female genitalia evident in such representations suggests the desired gender of a couple's
first child. He notes that the turret-headed copper nails, elengyela (plural, malengyela), that cover the figure
may record consultations with the nkishi while at the same time aesthetically enhancing the figure.

Once the principal reason for their creation is fulfilled, such works no longer have relevance. While some
personal mankishi are passed on from one generation to the next, they are generally discarded after they
perform the role for which they were conceived.

Songye power figures were a topic of discussion in one of my You Be the Judge page in my
Educational Resources section. This section is created by me to show different styles of pieces from
Sotheby's, Museums and galleries and give information about the pieces.

Click on the link to the right to go to the You Be the Judge page for Songye figures
Songye nkisi figure
8" tall
wood, metal tacks, reptile skin, horn, pigment

I think it's a nice example stylistically with nice symmetry and lines.