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Songye power figures
Nkisi and mankishi

First a little information...
Personal Power Figure (Nkishi)

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.

Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/explore/oracle/figures43.html
Personal Power Figure (Nkishi)
Songye, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood, metal; H. 21.8 cm (8 5/8 in.)
Late 19th–early 20th century
Private collection
Community Power Figure (Nkishi)

Songye community's most influential leaders, including lineage chiefs and other distinguished elders, come together
to commission a sculptural work—a power figure—that will collectively benefit its members. The role that such works,
mankishi (singular, nkishi), subsequently play is so central to collective experience that they become the principal
marker against which life unfolds. Mankishi enhance the overall quality of life by assuring that universally shared
concerns, such as procreation, protection against illness, witchcraft, and war, are addressed through divine

Along with allocating the necessary resources for an nkishi's acquisition and selecting the ritual specialist (nganga)
who will design and empower it, the elders appoint a guardian who will act as its interpreter. The nkishi imparts
information relevant to the community's welfare to that individual in the form of prophetic dreams. In times of extreme
crisis, such as an epidemic, the nkishi might be carried outside the village into the bush, where it would indicate
specific plant ingredients to be prepared and administered as a remedy.

The sculptural form of a community nkishi may be designed by a regionally renowned carver, but its essential
qualities are determined by an nganga. Such works are objects of symbolic interaction between the nganga and the
ancestral realm. In Songye cosmology, spirits of the dead are perceived to beneficially or adversely affect harvests,
health, and women's fertility. The nganga is endowed with the mystical knowledge necessary to make "medicines"
(bishimba) that invoke the spirit world by sparking a catalytic reaction. These "medicines" are associated with
awesome power and strength, and thus draw upon matter such as the bones, flesh, fur, or claws of physically
powerful and aggressive animals selected for their metaphoric associations with force. Bits of hair and nails taken
from members of the community are included as a means of particularizing a work's relationship to its constituency—
that is, the entire community. The unique combination of ingredients contained in a bishimba's sacred formula
ultimately determines a work's potential to spiritually fortify its patrons. Effective mankishi become the site for
ancestral spirits to communicate their insight and project their influence.

During the creation of its nkishi, members of a community are engaged in the process and attentively follow it as it
unfolds. As the primary author, the nganga oversees its execution and directs their participation. The ancestors are
invoked over the course of a procession from the village to the site of the tree from which the sculpture will be
carved. Dances and songs of tribute pay homage to the ancestors while the tree is cut down. Once the carving is
completed, the most important phase of execution occurs at night as the nganga visually and metaphysically
transforms the figure by inserting its crucial bishimba within cavities in the head and abdomen and attaching external
paraphernalia. To attract the ancestors' attention to the work, all fires are extinguished except for one near the
figure, and sacrificial offerings are made.

Ultimately, the composition of an nkishi not only incorporates intimate particulate matter belonging to its patrons but
has the outward appearance of an idealized portrait of a leader. The physiognomy and regalia of a community nkishi
emphasize the influential character of its subject, conveying a degree of physical strength and social rank
commensurate with the spiritual power it commands.

External features include additions of chiefly regalia, such as the strands of white and blue beads wrapped around
the neck and the animal hide and raffia skirt below the waist. Pelts of various kinds of animals that project strength,
dominance, and authority may be selected, and their names (or those of chiefs) are appropriate choices for the titles
assigned to such works. Though relatively small, this especially refined sculpture seems to project a monumental
stature, accentuated by the pedestal-like base that is an integral part of its design. The broad, rounded forehead
suggests omniscience. The head narrows toward the base of the chin, which extends into a long rectangular beard,
an attribute of leadership. Large, almond-shaped eyes, made more prominent by raised, arched eyebrows, suggest
a contemplative and inward-looking expression. The finely articulated facial features are accentuated with copper
bands, punctuated by metal tacks, extending vertically from the forehead to the tip of the nose and diagonally across
each cheek. This metal appliqué refers to forces such as lightning, which the nkishi can counteract and redirect to
benefit its constituents. Diminutive hands rest on either side of the pronounced abdomen, a sign of fertility and the
cyclical nature of life, which relates a community's ancestors to its unborn members.

The efficacy of an individual nkishi is regarded as finite, and therefore it must eventually be replaced. When this
happens, however, it continues to be remembered for specific feats attributed to it and becomes a quintessential
point of reference for entire chapters of a community's history
Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/explore/oracle/figures10.html
Community Power Figure (Nkishi)
Songye, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood, metal, palm oil, organic material; H. 41 cm (16 1/8 in.)
19th–early 20th century
James Ross Collection
Various Sotheby's pieces below
I tried to pick pieces that showed the stylistic variations of these types of pieces.
Property from a European Collector


New York  15,000—20,000 USD  Session 1
15 May 03 10:15 AM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   51,000 USD

height 22 7/8in. 58.1cm

standing on a circular base, with splayed hands held to the abdomen, beneath a cubistic body and large angular
head with bow-shaped mouth and square chin, a hole with magical elements inset at the crown; fine old patina of
use with heavy traces of thick oily patina on the face.

Acquired from Pierre Dartevelle, Brussels


New York  15,000—20,000 USD  Session 1
14 Nov 03 10:15 AM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   16,800 USD

measurements note
height 23 3/4 in. 60.3cm

rising from a domed base, the flat feet supporting the flaring torso with pendant breasts, the bent arms with fan-
like hands to the sides beneath the elongated neck, the head with jutting chin, parted lips and heavy-lidded eyes
inset with cowrie shells and strips of copper at the cheeks and forehead, wearing a close-cropped coiffure inset at
the crown with a horn; dark brown surface with areas of camwood powder at the eyes.

Alain Schoffel, Paris
Property of a Gentleman


New York  8,000—12,000 USD  Session 1
15 May 03 10:15 AM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   5,400 USD

height 10in. (25.4cm.)

nkisi, standing on a circular base, the cubistic body with a single brass tack at the navel, tapering to the neck
encircled by glass beads, the large head turned to the side and intersected by brass tacks at the cheeks and
forehead, with coffee-bean eyes and wearing a striated backswept coiffure with a horn inset at the crown; varied
aged dark brown and resinous patina.

Cf. Schildkrout (1989: 124, figure 85) for a related figure with turned head.


New York  30,000—50,000 USD  Session 1
14 Nov 03 10:15 AM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   30,000 USD

measurements note
height 24 1/2in. 62.2cm

rising from a fragmentary circular base, the stylized figure standing on muscular legs beneath the rectangular
torso punctuated by the raised navel and framed by truncated bent muscular arms with large hands held to the
waist, the gracefully hollowed chest supporting pendant breasts beneath shelf-like shoulders and a strong
columnar neck encircled by a necklace of twisted metal, the expressively carved prognathous face with animated
smiling mouth beneath a broad nose and large coffee bean eyes framed by raised expressive brows, and
wearing a domed coiffure with a receptacle holding a curved horn; exceptionally fine varied medium brown patina.


Mme Laure Kegel-Konietzko, Hamburg
Pierre Daretevelle, Brussels
Ratton-Hourdé, Paris


For related Songe power figures of this very particular style--large, heavy-lidded demilune eyes, broad sagittate
nose and prognathous jaw with exaggerated smile--see Kerchache et al (1993: 453, figures 729-731) for the well-
known figure from the Mestach Collection; Sotheby's New York, November 18, 2000, lot 133 for another formerly
in the Egon Guenther Collection; and MMA 'AF-14 Songe A-87' for a related figure in the Dallas Museum of Fine


New York  170,000—270,000 USD  Session 1
14 May 04 10:15 AM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   489,600 USD

measurements note
height 31 1/2 in. 80cm

nkishi, standing on a thick circular base, the waist encircled by a layered skirt, the broad, rounded hands resting
on the protruding abdomen, the navel, wrists, and knees punctuated by squares carved in low relief and encrusted
from insertion of materials, beneath the tapered waist encircled by one band of monitor skin and another of fiber,
leading to the angular, protruding chest and framed by the bent, muscular arms, the right arm with power materials
suspended at the elbow, the shelf-like shoulders framing an elongated, ridged neck encircled by woven fiber and
supporting the large, architectural head with a dramatic prognathus, angular jaw and an open, looped mouth
interjected by the hollowed, almond-shaped eyes bisected by the sagittate nose, with sheets of copper affixed at
the nose and temples, framed by disc-shaped ears pierced at the center and wearing a leather cap with pendant
flange at the reverse; exceptionally fine, varied and encrusted deep to reddish brown patina.

Collected by Hans Himmelheber in 1939

Himmelheber 1960: 401, figure 325

The art historian and anthropologist Hans Himmelheber (1908 - 2003) traveled in the then Belgian Congo from
May 7, 1938 to July 14, 1939 after visiting Cameroon and Gabon. His primary concern was an exploration of the
role of traditional African sculptors in their ethnic societies. While in the Congo, Himmelheber kept copious notes to
accompany his field photographs, the works he collected and the interviews he performed. Unfortunately, these
records were destroyed during World War II. Fortunately, he published some of his research in the 1930's in the
Belgian journal Brousse. See Himmelheber (1993) for the catalogue produced by the Rietberg Museum with 200 of
his incredible photographic records (including two from the Songe people) from this research and collecting trip.

In the Congo, Himmelheber collected wood sculpture and ethnographic objects to finance himself so he did not
have to rely on government support. Most of his Congo collection was sent to Switzerland in 1939. It survived the
war in storage at the Ethnographic Museum of Basel, which had subsidized Himmelheber’s field work in Africa since
1933. Soon after the war, he gave a sizable portion of his collection to Basel, but transferred the works reserved
for his personal collection, including this Kalebwe figure, from Basel to Heidelberg where he settled in 1947.

Other parts of Himmelheber’s Congo collection were sent directly from Leopoldville to Dr. Lore Kegel-Konietzko in
Hamburg, to his brother Bernhard Himmelheber in Karlsruhe, to Charles Ratton in Paris and to the Weyhe Gallery
in New York. The works in his parental home in Karlsruhe were destroyed in 1943 during the war. Only his photo-
negatives survived because they were safeguarded in his family’s country house. Therefore, the Congo sculptures
that were sent via Basel were the only ones that remained in his possession. These works were understandably
incredibly precious to him and he rarely sold works. Several works from his personal collection were published in
his well-known book Negerkunst und Negerkünstler (1960). Most of the sculptures published in this book are now
on long-term loan to the Rietberg Museum in Zurich where several are on permanent display. This monumental
power figure, however, remained at Himmelheber’s home in Heidelberg and was never shown or exhibited
elsewhere. The figure stood in his library and office, and he considered it one of the greatest chef-d’oeuvres of his
collection. Reproduced in Negerkunst und Negerkünstler (1960: figure 325), he referred to it as the "Great idol of
the Bekalebwe".

According to Himmelheber, he acquired this monumental wooden sculpture from the (Be-)Kalebwe owner, a sub-
group of the Songe. Himmelheber (1960: 406) stated that "the nganga buka, great sorcerers, of which there were
only a few among the Songe [when he visited them in 1939], have such figures carved by professional sculptors
called sende [or nsendwe, or smith]. The nganga then charges them with power to protect the local community,
especially to safeguard the birth of children in their territory. All children possibly conceived by invoking the power
figure or born while a particular power-figure reigns, receive its name. In 1939, a great number of (Be-)Kalebwe-
children were called 'Kima’ after the power figure yankima, or ‘the Father of Kima’. 'Once in the world, such a power
figure will multiply ... to such an extent that I found throughout the entire (Kalebwe-)region small yankima statues.
But this continues only as long as this yankima’s power is intact. After a while he will be replaced by another power
figure (with another name and another personality)... . In their appearance, however, all of these Songe power
figures have a relative uniformity." Often, Songe people would sell power figures which had become ineffectual.
Himmelheber states that he "was often told: 'Well, this power figure has brought us many children during his time'.
Once I was warned when I bought a particular large power figure that one could not be at all sure that its strength
was entirely extinct. And what happened: when I wanted to leave the place, he let my car slide in a ditch. Today,
this power figure is kept safely in the Ethnographic Museum of Basel."
Property from an English Private Collection


New York  30,000—50,000 USD  Session 1
15 May 03 10:15 AM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   90,000 USD

height 29 1/4in. 74.3cm

standing on a thick circular base, with thick legs supporting the protruding, pointed torso with a magic bundle
inserted at the navel, the bent arms and angular shoulders beneath the elongated neck encircled by rows of blue
glass beads, the large stylized head inset with rows of brass tacks, and the rectangular mouth baring teeth, the
blunt nose framed by rimmed, downturned eyes inset with cowrie shells, an arching horn inset at the crown; fine and
varied medium brown patina with areas of aged red and black pigment adorning the face.

Christie's London, December 1, 1982, lot 196


Paris  30,000—50,000 EUR  Session 1
15 Jun 04 2:30 PM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   45,600 EUR

haut. 81 cm

Cette statue nkisi exprime, à travers ses formes et par ses attributs, toute la puissance de sa fonction. Elle est
représentée dans une attitude conventionnelle : debout sur une lourde base cylindrique, hiératique, le corps
droit, jambes et bras en tension, fléchis, les mains posées de part et d'autre de l'abdomen saillant, les membres
forts alliés à une allure générale élancée, le visage à l'expression outrée. Les volumes sont fortement
géométrisés - à la fois massifs et anguleux, et le style vigoureux. Sa parure, qui rappelle celle des dignitaires
Songye, renforce son impact visuel : colliers de perles de verre blanches et bleues, ceintures en cuir et en peau
de reptile entourant le torse. Enfin, la corne plantée au sommet de la tête, pointe tournée vers l'avant, de même
que la petite calebasse nouée autour du pied droit évoquent la charge magique qu'elles contiennent, non visible
mais seule garante de la valeur de cette statue aux yeux des Songye. Très bel aspect de surface avec une
différence de tonalité dans la patine entre la couleur miel du corps et de la base et celle, brune et croûteuse, de
la tête et du cou. Parfait état de conservation.
Style des Songye occidentaux.

Venant d'une collection européenne, cette statue aurait, selon son actuel propriétaire, été rapportée en France
vers 1900.
From Christie's
Sale 1278, Lot 95
A Superb Songye Power Figure
Estimate: $80,000-120,000
Songye ivory
Property from a European Private Collection

Sotheby's 2004 - Lot 75

each of similar form, standing on a tapering circular base and flat feet beneath angular, muscular legs, the arms bent
alongside the torso with the finely incised hands resting on the prominent abdomen, pointed breasts and shelf-like shoulders,
the broad neck surmounted by the heads with pyramidal faces, incised eyes, sagittate nose and broad mouths with tight lips,
the female with incised notches at the forehead; fine glossy cream to beige ivory patina.
heights 7 5/8in. (male) and 8in. (female)   19.5cm and 20cm

Carel van Lier, Amsterdam, number 814, before 1927 Loed van Bussel, Amsterdam

Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Tentoonstelling van oude negerplastik: collectie van Kunstzaal Van Lier, January 8 -31,1927
Corbey 2000: 42-43
Van Lier 2003: 14 and cover

See the following lot for more information on Carel van Lier and his gallery. The photograph of Van Lier shown below
was believed to have been taken in 1927 during the exhibition of African works of art from his gallery at the modern art
museum in Amsterdam. The two Songe ivory figures are shown on the shelf behind him, the female to his left and the male to
the right. In the foreground is the Goma figure also offered (lot 76) reunited here with this Songe ivory pair seventy-seven
years later.
Fine ivory carvings are certainly well-known throughout Central Africa, and in particular among Songe-related groups such as
the Luba. However, ivory carvings are rare among the Songe, and are ususally seen in the form of prestige objects. A Songe
ivory in the collection of theTervuren Museum for example (MRAC 1995: 348-349, no. 150), while carved in the form of a horn,
was most likely never used, rather it served as an object of regalia. See also Sotheby's, London (July 13, 1971, lot 203) for
another Songe ivory object, possibly a finial or a mortar depicting two adorsed figures.
Also rare in Songe patrilineal culture are depictions of male and female pairs (Felix 1987: 164). The creation of a male and
female pair in ivory suggests, therefore, that this Songe pair was almost certainly a prestige object carved in a Lubaized
region of Songe territory.

Estimate - $50,000-70,000
Various gallery pieces from the Internet
These objects in this section were made for the collecting market and not for traditional use.
Not particularly good examples, but here for comparison.
Songye Wooden Nkisi Power Statue - PF.4705
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Date: 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 56.25" (142.9cm) high x 9.5" (24.1cm) wide
Collection: African
Style: Songye
Medium: Wood and Mixed Media

Location: Great Britain
Various Museum pieces from the Internet
Power Figure, Nkishi

Zaïre, Songye. Late 19th - early 20th
centuries A.D. Wood, brass, bone,
incrustation. 9 x 2 1/4 x 2 3/4 in. (22.9
x 5.7 x 7 cm). 1994.4.20
Michael C Carlos Museum
Emory University
Songye peoples
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Late 19th-early 20th century
Wood, horn, seed pod, glass beads,
iron, hide
H x W x D: 52 x 11.5 x 12.7 cm (20 1/2
x 4 1/2 x 5 in.)
Gift of Robert and Nancy Nooter

National Museum of African Art
Songye peoples
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Late 19th-early 20th century
Wood, brass, iron, horn, cowrie shell,
gourd, leopard's teeth, glass beads,
reptile skin, plant fiber
H x W x D: 66 x 21 x 24.1 cm (26 x 8
1/4 x 9 1/2 in.)
Museum purchase and gift of
Professor David Driskell, Friends of
the National Museum of African Art,
Robert and Nancy Nooter, Milton F.
and Frieda Rosenthal, Honorable and
Mrs. Michael Samuels, Mr. Michael

National Museum of African Art
African Art from the
Bayly Museum
Figura Nkisi
etnia Songye, Rep. Dem. del Congo
Legno, corno e metallo, h. cm. 102
British Museum, Londra
Foto tratta dal volume "Africa, The Art
of a Continent" di T. Phillips ed. Prestel
Plattsburg State Art Museum
Images added August 2nd, 2004
Click on image to see larger version
Click on image to see larger version
The one below is my favorite
Click on image to see larger version
Click on image to see larger version
Scan of an invitation to the exhibit
"Songye Power Figures"
from 1996 at the
Allan Stone Tribal Art Museum in New York City
(submitted by African Antiques member James Tyler)
Rand African Art
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