A carving of a high-status woman kneeling in supplication with medicines (bilongo) on her stomach and beneath her legs. The Kongo ideal of beauty is represented through scarification markings on her lower back, a mitre-shaped hat and filed teeth.
A mirror that once masked the bilongo on her front has gone revealing marine shells inside. These shells are linked to water spirits. An x-ray of this carving reveals the wrapped bilongo between her legs to include a spiral shell (Tympanotomus fuscatus), which is thought to be connected with birth and long life.
Minkisi (sing. nkisi)
When Europeans first encountered power figures (minkisi) in the Congo, they believed them to be man-made deities (‘fetishes’) that were worshipped. However, minkisi belonged to an age-old complex cosmology, one that was centred on a reciprocating universe. This meant that there existed a constant interchange between the visible ‘world of the living’ and the invisible ‘world of the dead’. Minkisi created a physical connection between these worlds.
Their potency included ‘medicinal’ substances (bilongo) that would help to bind the powers of the invisible world to the figure. Bilongo included ingredients associated with the specific ability of the figure. They could be used to heal, alleviate hardship, locate witches or bring harm – they were mainly created for the benefit of people.
Minkisi were activated by a specialist called an nganga. Power figures were constructed with great care to produce a visual effect, they were viewed as items of great power. When not in use they were stored in the nganga’s hut.
On 6 September 2022 RAMM hosted ten internationally renowned writers, poets and spoken word artists as part of a partnership with the Museum of Colour. The Museum of Colour is a digital museum that explores the contribution made by People of Colour to the nation’s culture, specifically in film, television and the arts. Mona Arshi, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Fred D'Aguiar, Jennifer Lee Tsai, Adam Lowe, Shivanee Ramlochan, Jacob Sam-La Rose, John Siddique, Yomi Sode and Yusra Warsama performed specially written pieces, influenced and inspired by objects in the collections at RAMM accompanied by live music from composer Randolph Matthews. The event is part of Museum of Colour's exhibition 'My Words', celebrating the legacy of poets of Colour in Britain over 250 years. Randolph Matthews composed a piece of music in response to this object. More information on the project can be found in the Museum of colour’s website. https://museumofcolour.org.uk/my-words/select/
This object is on display at RAMM in the World Cultures gallery.