African Minkisi and American Culture
African Minkisi have been used for hundreds of years in West Central Africa, This area where they are traditionally from was once known as the kingdom of Kongo, when Europeans started settling and trading with the BaKongo people. Kongo was a well-known state throughout much of the world by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The BaKongo, however, had probably long used minkisi before ethnographers and anthropologists ever recorded them. Minkisi are complex items that are used to heal and to harm people, and there is no equivalent term for nkisi in any European language. A seventeenth century Dutch geographer first wrote of the nkisi, and said that, “These Ethiopians [that is, the BaKongo] call moquisie [minkisi] everything in which resides, in their opinion, a secret and incomprehensible virtue to do them good or ill, and to reveal event of past and future” (Williams, 13). The term illness, in this context, is quite different than what we refer to illness. Illness, to the BaKongo, meant anything from sickness, to loss of property, and the inability to succeed in things like school and work. . “The perpetual struggle with the unseen forces that cause illness and misfortunes was (and is) called “war” in Kongo” (MacGaffey, 98). A war is ended when one side of the struggle proves that they have better magic. The objects themselves are extremely complex, and most of them require hours of, “painstaking labor to construct” (MacGaffey, 33). “All minkisi, whether in the form of wooden figures, snail shells, raffia bags, or clay pots, are containers for “medicines” that empowers them” (MacGaffey, 43). “The usual containers included the shells of large snails, antelope horns, cloth bags, gourds, and clay pots. Although minkisi in museums are usually wooden figurines and statues, containers of this kind may well have been the minority” (MacGaffey, 63). Without medicines, the minkisi are nothing, they are not alive, nor can they perform their functions. “To BaKongo, all exceptional powers result from some sort of communication with the dead” (MacGaffey, 59). Chiefs, witches, diviners/prophets, and magicians could all do this, especially through and with the help of the minkisi. There are rules and ways of doing things with them, to them, that exemplify so many aspects of Kongo cultu...
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...t, with a mirror-stoppered cow horn of clairvoyance (vititi mensu), musical instruments used in sacred ritual, and elaborate beaded artwork.
A red flag with protective signs hangs on the wall behind the nkisi to protect the altar, its owner and his family from harm.
The basic Kongo cosmogram is a cross within a circle, dikenga, that is a symbolic chart of the voyage of the soul. As a miniature of the sun, the soul is thought to have four moments -- birth, efflorescence, fading and the return in the dawn of a coming day. Triangles, diamonds, spirals, or crisscrosses denote this cyclical movement. The soul, which is thought by the Bakongo to reside in the forehead, is often represented in diamond form and can be seen on many African masks. The exhibition includes such masks -- 19th century Punu, Teke (Tsaaye), and Chokwe masks, and a 20th century Vili mask ringed with feathers. In addition, a fully feathered Mardi gras "Wild Man" costume from New Orleans, reminiscent of Kongo feather masks and headdresses worn by healers, is a living example of the creolized Kongo traditions found in the United