Africa: Minkisi, Power Objects of the Kongo People
Mon, 4.20.2015. Our living room is a hodge-podge of "knick-knacks" from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We treat the crowd of objects as if we were hosting a cocktail party. Every so often, we move our "guests" around to liven up the conversation. Then we lose track of who's who. When human visitors come, sometimes they are oblivious to the quiet chatter; sometimes, they join the conversation. Sometimes, they react to the strangeness of an old relic... the uncanny sensation of holding, say, a gorilla skull that has been melded to a basket--that rattles when you shake it. That uncanny* sensation makes people laugh and crack jokes.
So, I take a step back from our perpetual cocktail party, figure out who came with whom, and do a little research. A book I'm reading** has a chapter on the nkisi of the Kongo people, so I rounded up ours for a little tête-à-tête.
Nkisi (plural, minkisi) are power objects. If you think it's whimsical that I talk about a living room full of conversation among the whatnots, reading up on the minkisi has pursuaded me to take my metaphor more seriously.
The nkisi is a healing object, custom-made for a specific purpose. Nsemi Isaki wrote in 1900:
[Nkisi is] the name of the thing we use to help a person when that person is sick and from which we obtain health; the name refers to leaves and medicines combined together... It is also call nkisi because there is one to protect the human soul... The nkisi has life; if it had not, how could it heal and help people? But the life of an nkisi is different from the life in people. It is such that one can damage its flesh..., burn it, break it, or throw it away; but it will not bleed or cry out... nkisi has an inextinguishable life coming from a source.**
You see here the three Bakongo minkisi who find their home with us. Two were fabricated with "overmodeled" simian/ape skulls and basketwork. One is a human figure, carrying the medicine bundle on his back and sporting a mirror in his belly.
According to Thompson,** each nkisi contains medicines (bilongo) and a soul (mooyo), combined to give it life and power. The medicines are divided into two kinds: spirit-embodying and spirit-directing. The spirit-embodying materials (e.g., cemetery earth or riverbed clay) contain the vital spark of an ancestor returned to serve the owner or a spark of someone captured by witchcraft to do the bidding of the owner, either for the good of the community (if the owner is generous and responsible) or for selfish ends (if he is not).
The spirit-directing medicines symbolically instruct the spirit-embodied material to hunt down evil (or whatever task has been commissioned).
It has never occurred to us to invoke their power. We are not really the owners. We are merely the innkeepers where they are currently lodging.
Of course, this brings me to the question: how did such powerful and spirit-filled objects find their way to a townhouse in upstate New York? The two skull containers were purchased in Paris in 1974--certainly an era of upheaval for what was once the Belgian Congo. But what era hasn't been? Since the 1870s or so, Congo has been the playground of colonialists and despots, always in turmoil. Colonial explorers tended to just grab whatever they wanted as curios and souvenirs--I'm sure it was no different in the Bakongo lands. (To get a taste, watch Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Season 1, episode 6).
Also, I have only the most fleeting understanding of these objects. Maybe they were discarded after they did their jobs, their mojo all used up. Given the simple lives of people in a disrupted land, who has storage space? Perhaps they are buried or hidden away, only to be found by someone with no stake in its magic, looking for something to sell.
Then, there is the role of Christianity. The Portuguese brought Christianity to the Kingdom of Kongo in the 15th century. Many of the early missionaries encouraged the incorporation of Bakongo theology into Christian concepts and dogma... but when it went too far there would be an official purge of the old-time "superstitions." In the 20th century, who knows... between the advance of Western religions and the halting attempts at "modernization," you can envision many scenarios for how these talismans might make it into the global marketplace.
One Sunday morning when I was walking through the African exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum, I got a sudden inspiration. In my own kind of agnostic way, I do sense that such sacred objects contain spirits. And if these spirits are imbued with such power, maybe they decide when it's time to go. Maybe all the horrors of tribal disruptions and despotic/colonial raping of resources are too much for these souls who are meant to heal the pious individual. Overpowered by the chaos, they send out their beams to the passing caravan: Take me! And fast forward, they are chillin' at the Zimmer pad, chatting up the bronze Buddha on the next bar stool and chasing away the household blues on a snowy day.
But, really, in the end, I have only questions.