NKISI

Jean-Michel Basquiat - Grillo (1984)

The duality of the central figure intimates a common source; in fact, Basquiat has looked to the African Congo for inspiration. The left figure carries a black crown spiked with nails, recalling the Nkisi figures of the Hemba culture (cf. figure 1). The Nkisi’s power derives from magic stored in their bodies, and when an agreement was reached between warring tribes both sides would swear an oath before the cult and drive iron blades or nails in to seal their oath. Thus, the supernatural powers latent in the deities were called upon to punish any who broke their pact.
Grillo is also infused with Caribbean religious imagery (cf. figure 2). The second figure, crowned instead with a halo display, mimics the posture of the first but the presence of both lays further claim to Basquiat’s original source: as two sides took oath over the Nkisi cult figure, so too do both figures in Grillo participate in the field of action the artist creates. Tellingly, they demonstrate leader status through the torch they bear and the fists they yield in dominance.


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Jean-Michel Basquiat - Untitled (1981)


Other (real) Nkisi




Nkisi figures are made by the Kongo people of central Africa. Their power comes from magical substances stored inside their bodies and heads. They are used by ritual experts known as nganga as witnesses to oaths taken at the end of war or judicial proceedings. For example, representatives from each side involved in a conflict would hammer an iron wedge or knife into the nkisi figure and fire a salute to signal a peaceful agreement. In judicial disputes over land, swearing an oath, sealed by hammering a nail, would be sufficient to secure the land for generations. Personal vows could also be sealed through the figures. They could protect a person from envy, identify thieves and be used for predicting the future. A carver made the nkisi and a nganga prepared the sacred medicines that are attached to them or put inside them. It is these magical substances that persuade the spirit to take up residence in the nkisi. Many of the figures were named after chiefs and were paid similar forms of respect. A typical introduction might begin, 'Sir, open your ears, be attentive, so and so is coming to make an oath on you, may your eyes be clear, your ears open'. The spirit that the minkisi (plural of nkisi) was believed to embody, however, was that of a hunter, returned from the land of the dead.

The magic substances contain a great variety of material. One Kongo writer described the contents of a medicine bundle attached to one nkisi as including 'teeth of vipers and all snakes that bite with especial viciousness. Also the claws of mongoose and jackal'. X-ray analysis of two of the figures on display at the Horniman showed earth, beads, animal teeth, and in one case a cartridge case. Throughout the world, societies value things that are rare and difficult to acquire. In many cases, rare material from other societies is considered exotic and endowed with special properties. This may explain the presence of mirrors, beads and cartridges in the medicine or magical bundles.

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