Kongo artist, Mayombe Region,
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Protective Figure (nkisi)
Late 19th century
Wood, metal, mirror, raffia, feathers, and organic material
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes, 1991 (91.7)
Minkisi figures (singular nkisi) serve many functions: to protect, heal, and seal agreements. The sculpture becomes active when a spiritual specialist (nganga) adds special material (bilongo) and calls spirits to inhabit the figure. Its stomach is sealed with a mirror, which recalls the reflective surface of a river in which spirits dwell, and which allows vision into the spirit world as well as vigilance against enemies. The nails and spikes driven into the sculpture when people sought help from it triggered its power and solemnized oaths sworn before it.
Kota artist, Gabon
Figure (mbulu ngulu)
Wood and brass
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes, 1972
Covered in hammered brass with wide, distinctive eyes, this reliquary figure (mbulu ngulu, or “image of the spirit of the dead”) was created to top a relic box in order to guard and protect the departed and mediate between people and their ancestors. The figure’s intense gaze warded off intruders, and the brass repelled trespassers from the shrine and maintained the harmonious relationship between living descendants and the deceased. The metal signifies prosperity and provides a shiny, reflective surface to drive away evil forces that prefer darkness.
Yoruba artist, Nigeria
Beaded Crown (adé)
Glass beads, cloth, and thread basketry
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes, 1977
In Yoruba art beads are points of light. Just as beads are transformed by light, they transform the objects and persons they adorn. Beads are also economically valuable and signal great power and spiritual health, which is why this sacred crown was meant for the ruler (oba). Faces on either side of the crown may refer to Olokun, god of the sea and “owner of the beads”; royal ancestors; or the inner, spiritual face of the oba himself, with bulging eyes signaling the ruler’s illumination.
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Fante artist, Ghana
Pendant, Soul Washer’s
Purchased with funds from the Art Trust Endowment,
Gilded objects communicate power and leadership to the Fante and to people around the globe, admired for their luminosity and reflective, eye-catching properties. For the Fante gold represents the soul (kra) and is an earthly reflection of the sun. Among a Fante chief’s court officials is the “soul washer,” identified by this pendant and responsible for the well-being of the king’s soul and those of the entire kingdom through purification rituals.The radiating patterns (here, beetles and ferns), adapted from imported objects, reflect the ruler’s pivotal position in the gold trade.