African Art Is Not Bound By Place

Topics: Haitian Vodou, Religion, Haiti Pages: 11 (3159 words) Published: April 17, 2014
Disproving Myths: African Art is not Bound By Place
In Suzanne Preston Blier’s article Enduring Myths of African Art, she articulates seven of the most common myths believed around the world surrounding African art.   Of those seven myths, one that stands most true is the myth that African art is bound by place; the idea that African art in particular travels nowhere and its ideas are constrained to just the cultures they are sculpted in.  Blier states, “The African art of myth is also frequently presented, incorrectly again, as an art rigidly bound by place.”1  She continues to express how most of the African art objects and styles studied are judiciously ascribed to particular regions and cultures as if they have no ability to circulate beyond where they came from.   Nevertheless, there are two particular objects in African art that help to disprove this myth that African art is bound by place– the nkisi nkondi of the Kongo culture and the paket kongo of the Haitian Vodou culture.

The nkisi nkondi (figure 1) of the Kongo culture is a very unique item of African art and has many distinctive qualities that are often difficult to compare with any other African object.  However, the paket kongo (figure 2) of the Haitian Vodou culture shares many similarities to the Minkisi.  Figure 1 is generally made of wood, iron, shells, nails, cloth, fiber, medicinal materials, etc. and usually contains a mirror in the belly; it typically contains anything that could represent some kind of life force or symbolize the circle of life.  Similarly, figure 2 is generally made of cloth, fibers, feathers, medicinal packets and any other ritual objects that could be embodied religiously, like crucifixes.  Not only are these two objects physically created in similar fashion, but they also have very synonymous uses and practices. The nkisi nkondi and the paket kongo are both used medically, politically, and religiously in each of their respective cultures.  The Haitian Vodou culture is practiced chiefly in Haiti (blue circle in figure 3), which is miles and miles away from western Africa (red circle in figure 3) where the Kongo culture had originated.2  Consequently, the very distinct similarities in custom between the minkisi and the paket kongo gives reason to believe that African art is in fact not bound by place at all; contrarily, the parallels in medicinal, political, and religious practices between these two objects presents a strong argument to diverge this myth that African art is bound by place.

The minkisi statues, as stated in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ article Nail Figure (Nkisi Nkondi), “derived their supernatural power from medicinal substances.”3 In its most basic form, it is an object that has no power unless it contains empowering materials or “medicines”, called biloongo, which can consist of animal, vegetable, mineral matter and even blood.  According to Jim Perkinson, “the hollowed backside harbors medicine bundles placed there by the ngango (traditional healer).”4 The ngango is the only one with the power to connect with the other world and is seen as the most powerful people within their culture. The ngango places these “medicines” into cavities of the head and body of the figure, which gives the nkisi nkondi power, making it possible for the client to connect with the ancestors through the ngango.5   After these medicines are placed in the minkisi, the nganga will generally hammer a nail into the figure in order to evoke the spirits, which will help heal the subject. Nsemi Isaki further explains the importance of the minkisi relationship within the Kongo culture in her quote from Pamela McGlusky’s article The Fetish and Imagination of Europe:

“‘Nkisi is the name of the thing we use to help a man when he is sick and from which we obtain health; the name refers to leaves and medicines combined together…. An nkisi is also a chosen companion, in whom all people find confidence.  It is a hiding place for...


Bibliography: Consentino, Donald J. "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou." African Arts 29, no. 2 (1996): 91-94, 103-104. Accessed November 13, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3337381.
Constentino, Donald J
Gardullo, Paul. "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou by Donald Consentino." The Journal of American Folklore 113, no. 447 (2000): 92-94. Accessed November 12, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/541270.
Google Books
ÔÈßÉ ÇáÈÑæäÒíÉ ÇáäÓÇÆíÉ. "zombie ÓÍÑ ÇáÒæãÈí ÈÇáÕæÑ." Accessed November 20, 2013. http://www.brooonzyah.net/vb/t163021.html.
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