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Power Figure, Nkishi Permanent Collection:
Sub-Saharan African Art:
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

Power figures (pl. minkisi/mankishi) are found in many cultures of Zaïre. These figures are usually male and are used to contact benevolent spirits in the hope of curing illness, infertility, or other maladies. Various substances with magical properties, called bishimba, are placed inside cavities in the stomach or head of the figure to enhance its power. Local diviners are entrusted with the creation of the bishimba, a process that is highly secretive. Many of these figures are adorned with raffia, beads, and even ceremonial dress in an effort to increase the magical properties they possess. Often these additional adornments of cloth and beads are removed before the figure changes ownership due to the importance of the powerful embellishments in the figure's ability to function magically. This is why many figures no longer have beads and clothing when they arrive in the West.

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