Materials and meaning in the study of a Kongo Nkisi nkondi: The power of collaboration

Kate Gabrielli


Over the course of a three-year, Mellon-funded Conservation Initiative in African Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (2016–2019), an extensive collection of objects from across the African continent was documented, studied, and treated in collaboration with allied professionals across the world, including other conservators, art historians, and scientists. A key objective was developing models of collaboration to employ in the care, exhibition, handing, and documentation of these objects.

One corpus of objects selected from among the larger collection was a transcultural group of power figures, including a bocio figure (Adja culture), a Community Nkishi (Songye culture), and a Nkisi nkondi (Kongo culture). The Kongo Nkisi was chosen for further investigation and materials analysis.

A compelling and iconic form of African art for the Western audience, minkisi (sing. nkisi) represented a spiritual force and a combination of ingredients through which that spirit was invoked. An empty and newly-carved statuette remained inert until it was empowered by an nganga, or ritual specialist, using incantations and ceremonies, thereby transforming the physical material into a spiritually active entity.

The VMFA Nkisi is materially complex and required investigation using scientific and imaging techniques, as well as collaboration with outside scientists to identify or classify the remaining power materials.

Collaboration with natural history collections, including the Afrika Museum in Tervuren and the Smithsonian Institution, was instrumental in identifying many of these materials, including plant, animal, and mineral components. Using these collections, the identification of octahedral magnetite crystals and Congo Gray Parrot feathers within the head-pack was essential to both conservation and curatorial research and helped to lend more subtlety to our understanding of this complex and compelling object.

Although this project attempted to identify as many material ingredients as possible, we can never presume to know the whole meaning and intent of these materials to the maker. While describing the ingredients chosen can be critical to our interpretations, we learned that we must check our drive to classify and catalogue, especially where this mirrors colonial practices of pillaging, displaying, and claiming ownership of native property and knowledge. In the case of this study, reflection on our professional practices helped to present a more sensitive and nuanced interpretation of this powerful object as well as to inspire a wider, more inclusive dialogue.

2021 | Virtual | Volume 28