What would it be like if you and your community had a single object to help solve problems, stay healthy, and maintain peace? What would such an object look like? What qualities would it have?
This carved figure’s raised arm, sharp surface, intense stare, and assertive stance might not immediately communicate “peace” to many people today. To the Kongo people who used it in the late 19th and early 20th century, however, the sculpture held the promise of peace. They counted on this aggressive-looking figure to help solve their most troublesome crises, such as healing the sick, protecting the village, ending natural disasters, or getting revenge on someone who misbehaved.
The Kongo people in Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo and their neighbors call figures like this nkisi nkondi, which means “medicine/night hunter.” A sculptor carved this figure in the fierce pose of a hunter. But this hunter did not hunt animals; it hunted knowledge and the truth. The nkisi nkondi was regarded as a powerful spiritual being that would hunt down people who caused trouble or broke agreements in the community.
“Medicine” refers to materials hidden in the figure’s head, collar, and abdomen by a ritual specialist (much like a doctor, religious leader, and counselor, all in one) to empower the figure to help people engage with the spirit world. The medicines might have included dirt, stones, leaves, seeds, fur, and feathers, all believed to have qualities that lent supernatural power to the figure, not unlike special stones or other objects frequently kept for good health or luck.
The nkisi nkondi, which once held a small knife or spear in its raised arm, combines powers of healing and punishment. With the assistance of the specialist, those who counted on the spiritual power of the figure gathered around it to discuss problems and develop solutions. To ensure that the nkisi nkondi would enforce settlements, the individuals drove sharp objects like a nail or blade into it. They believed that the figure’s spiritual power was so great, they’d better keep their promises.
The Kongo community relied upon the figure and the forces associated with it to maintain social harmony—or peace.
Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light, is one of the most popular deities in Asia. To his worshippers, he promises the possibility of life in Paradise without the pain and suffering of this world. The Amida Buddha’s raised right hand disperses fear, and the lowered left hand is open in the gesture of giving or “wish granting.” Japan, Amida Buddha, 12th century, wood with traces of lacquer and gold, Minneapolis Institute of Art, The John R. Van Derlip Fund
People in the 1500s believed coral to be an antidote for poison; thus, this cutlery set would have offered its user special protection during a meal at the table of a rival family. Italy, Two-piece cutlery set, late 16th century; coral, brass, niello, silver, iron, gold; Minneapolis Institute of Art, gift of funds from the Decorative Arts Council with proceeds from the 2008 Antiques Show & Sale.
In this portrait, the right hand of U.S. President and peacemaker George Washington rests on a copy of the Constitution, a contract to ensure the protection and well-being of United States citizens. Thomas Sully, American, 1783-1872, Portrait of George Washington (1732-1799), c. 1820, Oil on canvas, Minneapolis Institute of Art, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund
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