Tracking the Power Figures of the Congo Basin on North American soil

These figures were created by master sculptors under ritual supervision. 

Bantu ethnic group. Speakers of Kicongo. 

Watershed of the River Congo. 

They were made of wood, resin, cowrie shell, animal hide and hair, ceramic, plant fiber and pigment. 

Always male.



Nkisi N’kondi: Mangaaka, Republic of Congo or Cabinda, Angola, Chiloango River region, Kongo Peoples, Yombe group, 19th century; wood, iron, resin, ceramic, plant fiber, textile, pigment.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY


Sacred substances were hidden in the interior of these figures. It was these substances which empowered the figures. 



Mnkisi were designed to be powerful protectors of their supplicants.  They brought on illness and ill luck to those who disturbed them. 

Every aspect of their manufacture and design and materials had meaning. 


They had four primary functions: to project power, to enforce order, to heal and to protect their owners. 

Each nail bored into this wood represented a contract to be honoured or a wrong to be avenged. 





These mnkisi  from the 18th and 19th centuries are from the collection of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania 









The Mangaaka were the most potent category of the mnkisi. 

They were differentiated by the power vested in them: the greatest possible.


Photos of Mangaaka were taken at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, NY, in the winter of 2015; and from its website.





These figures lean forward from their waists up in a pose of threatening dominance. 


For the people of the Congo basin and – surprisingly – for the Westerners among them, the Mangaaka represented the most influential defensive instrument created in the second half of the 19th century to deal with the continuous, violent incursion of foreigners into the Congo Basin.





These were incursions by traders, colonizers and missionaries, businessmen. Mostly Europeans. Some Americans also. 

The prize was – and remains – the very rich resources of the lower Congo basin.





That Westerners confiscated these figures is not surprising:  their cruelties cost or shortened the lives of a large number of the inhabitants of the Congo basin. 





These figures were desacralized before they were handed over to foreigners: sacred substances inside them were removed.






Fewer than 20 of the Mangaaka made in colonial times are extant today so thorough was their destruction. They are under glass in museums outside Africa.








Power figure (Nkisi nkondi), late 19th to mid-20th century; wood, glass, iron, pigment, cloth, plant fiber, horn nails.

Kongo central province, Democratic Republic of Congo. Smithsonian Museum of African Art



After colonial times, local political elites have joined in the pillage of the countries of the Congo basin. 

Just as the powers of surrounding countries have contributed for their own reasons to its destabilization and ungovernability.







The local and long-distance blow-backs of this ghastly history continue to envenom the world to this day.










Downstream: a manifestation in the history of African American Art




Memory Jug, 1900-1930, earthenware, putty, nails, scissors, pipes and other found objects. 

Maker unknown.  Philadelphia Art Museum.




The museum notes that memory jugs do not date before 1900 but are thought to have been inspired by objects remembered by members of the enslaved population in the American south. 


It is not known whether these are grave markers or memorials.





Jack Whitten, 1939-2018, American artist


Jack Whitten escaped the violence of the struggle for civil rights in the deep South by going to New York.  He finished college there.  He visited both Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums often. 


And subsequently drew from the mnkisi  he found there for his own sculptural work.


He changed the meaning of the nails bored into wood of the mnkisi.


He installed in his nail sculptures ideas of the greatest significance for our lives:


our line of descent, marriage;  miscegenation; the memory of our kin; our natural environment; the evolution of our technology.


These sculptures he made almost entirely on the Greek island of Crete which he began visiting with his Greek-American wife in 1969.


He summered in a village in Crete from 1974 onwards; and learned to carve from local artisans.

These works are a private exploration of themes dear to the artist’s thinking.  He consented, not long before he died, to their exhibition.


That the first work in which Jack Whitten incorporated nails is dedicated to Malcolm X is probably not a coincidence. 

Malcolm X remains an influential figure; a man so feared for his influence, his eloquence and autonomy that he was assassinated. 


A man also, who in his long spiritual journey, crossed numerous boundaries to arrive, at the Hajj, at an acceptance that our differences are superficial; and that we are one.




Homage to Malcolm, 1965, American elm, partly stained, coiled wire, nails,  mixed media.

Jack Whitten, 1938-2018, American.   Estate of the artist; on view at the Metropolitan Museum in 2018




It is interesting how in the ‘weapon’ below, the artist has blunted the threat of the nails by turning down many of their heads. 

Also a reference to the dense matting of African hair, perhaps. 




The Afro-American Thunderbolt, 1983-84, black mulberry, copper plate, nails.

Jack Whitten, 1938-2018, American.   Estate of the artist.





Homage to the Kri-Kri, 1985, black mulberry, nails, mixed media.

Jack Whitten, 1938-2018, American.   Estate of the artist.  On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018

The homage is to the Cretan ibis which is a descendant of domesticated goats kept by the Minoans.  





The Saddle, 1977, Cretan walnut, black mulberry, mixed media. 

Jack Whitten, 1938-2018. Estate of the artist.  On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018

Screws, nails and women’s faces are inserted into and carved on the wood. 

The Metropolitan Museum believes that this piece represents male heterosexual desire.




The Wedding, wild cypress from southern Greece, black Mozambique marble, metal, mixed media, 2006.

Jack Whitten, 1938-2018, American.   Estate of the artist. On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018.


This piece represents the mixing of people and cultures and the artist’s interest in the process known as creolization.




Bosom, for Aunt Surlina, 1985, black mulberry, cherry wood, metal, mixed media.

Jack Whitten, 1938-2018, American.   Estate of the artist.On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018


The artist’s aunt, Surlina, a physically and socially powerful woman, ran a cafe in the town in which he was born, Bessemer, Alabama, whose manufacturing base was metal objects.




Below is Lucy  (Dinknesh – Aren’t You A Wonder – in Amharic).


She represents the creature, an Astrolapithecus Afarensis found in Ethiopia, 3.18 million years old and a possible ancestor of Sapiens. 

Unlike the mnkisi, she curves backwards.


Here is a nkisi in totemic homage to the creativity of our species.  She looks to the past and to the future.

Each material used by the artist represents a phase of Man’s material evolution. Jack Whitten’s green American Express card is visible.  




Lucy, 2013, black mulberry, Phaistos stone, mahogany, metal I-beam, mixed media

Jack Whitten, 1938-2018, American.   Estate of the artist.  On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018





Nick Cave, American artist born 1959


Furball :  the fur which accumulates in the gut of cats from their habit of self-grooming; the fur is often expelled in a matted ball.




Furballs #1, #2, #3, c. 1995.  Philadelphia Art Museum



These creations seem to refer to race in north America pointing 


both to the definition of black and white Americans as different by reason of certain physical characteristics


and to the fact of their membership of a single race whose bodies function, for their biology, identically


and to the physical and psychological intimacy of the races in north America


and to the way in which many define the other as alien, other, to be excluded from the common good.





Furballs #2, 1995, hair, twine, nails.

Nick Cave, American born 1959.  Philadelphia Art Museum




Furballs #3, c. 1995, hair, twine, nails.

Nick Cave, American born 1959.  Philadelphia Art Museum




I suppose it was the juxtaposition of nails and hair,

the latter being something so familiar and intimate, that translated into personal violence for me

so that I had to move away from these objects quickly


and found myself thinking of the Mangaaka: of their fate and that of their people.