Nkishi protective statue
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Songye

This large male nkishi statue protected the clan and its chief thanks to its magical and religious powers. Its power is shown in the vitality of its gaze, the protruding mouth and its features inlaid with metal. The neck is draped in necklaces covered in snakeskin. Fish hooks hang from them symbolising the rainbow that captures the souls of the deceased. A large copper plate covers the navel, an opening filled with magical ingredients.

Nkishi protective statue

  • Songye people, Kalebwe subgroup
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • 19th century
  • Wood, copper, iron, plant fibres, reptile skins, pigments, mix of diverse substances, pigments (loincloth and rod lost)
  • H 86.5cm x W 30cm x D 27cm




  • Collected in Lubumbashi (formerly Elisabethville) between 1934 and 1935 by Dr. Lucien van Hoorde, Brussels
  • Former collection of Albert Godart, Belgium
  • Wayne Heathcote, London
  • Former Bernard Cats collection, Brussels
  • Pierre Dartevelle, Brussels
  • Sotheby’s, Paris, 23 June 2006, lot no. 131
  • Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris
  • Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.4), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.

The work’s original context

This protective nkishi statue (pl. mankishi) was used a mediator between people and the spirits of the deceased. It sheds light on the complex spiritual and ritual world of the Songye people, based in the heart of the wooded savannahs in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Songye people inhabit a vast area of land covering the provinces of Kasaï-Oriental, Katanga and part of south Kivu. This region is bordered by various rivers and tributaries of the River Congo: the Lubilash and the Sankuru to the west, the Lomami in the centre and the Lalaba to the east. The vast expanse of this geographical area partly explains the abundance and diversity of the statues produced within the territory. The Songye people are structured into chiefdoms of varying sizes with more or less centralised power. Though they share the same socio-cultural, linguistic, political and spiritual heritage, they do not form a homogeneous group. They can be divided into different sub-groups characterised by variations in socio-cultural and linguistic structures of varying importance from region to region. The name Songye mainly covers the chiefdoms of the western group, considered the most traditional and inhabiting the region’s best-conserved area. The other chiefdoms – including the Kalebwe, Milembwe, Eki, Ilande, Bala, Tschofa, Sanga and Tempa groups – have different names. Lastly, the Songye region has special ties with the Luba kingdom to the south, which explains the similarities in their systems of thought, as well as in their socio-cultural and linguistic structures.

The Songye people’s protective mankishi statues: intercession between men and spirits

Songye mankishi statues were used in magic-religious rites to encourage healing, fecundity, good fortune and protection. They belong to a special set of objects known as bwanga (plural manga), used for propitiatory purposes. These religious manga objects with protective, prophylactic and therapeutic purposes can take different forms or be made up of objects or mixes of various materials. The mankishi – a special form of manga – take on the appearance of anthropomorphic statues, usually male, some of the attributes and formal characteristics of which constitute symbols connected to cosmogony and origin myths. Songye cosmogonic myths were taught in the Bukishi initiation society, which was closely tied to political power. Initiation into the Bukishi society took place over two ritual phases or steps: bukishi wa ntoshi (white earth Bukishi), symbolising the heavens, associated with benevolent spirits, and that of Bukishi wa nkula (red powder Bukishi), symbolising the earthly world where malevolent spirits roam.

Example of a bwanga (pl. manga) in an indeterminate form. Kabinda region, 1973. © AP.0.0.22360, RMCA Tervuren Collection; photo D. Pieters, 1914

As vessels of the spirits of the deceased, called mikishi (singular mukishi), protective mankishi statues played a very important role in the Songye people’s ritual practices. In the Songye people’s cosmogony and system of thought, especially their idea of the cycle of life and death, each human being contains a spirit called kikudi (plural bikudi), which, upon the person’s death, leaves its bodily dwelling to then be reincarnated in a newborn’s body. This continuity in the cycle of life – from birth to death – underlines the importance of the spirits of the deceased and their recurring intervention in the daily life of the living. It also bears witness to the kind of dualistic notion typical of the Songye people’s spiritual world, as some mikishi spirits, being unable to be reincarnated, were condemned to wander the earth then changed into malevolent spirits, afflicting the living through various form of harm. While certain Songye groups distinguish the bikudi, reincarnated benevolent spirits, from the mikishi, roaming malevolent spirits, other groups, like the Kalebwe people, call both malevolent and benevolent spirits of the deceased mikishi without any distinction.

Magic contents to activate the effigy and a network of inner tunnels

A nkishi protective statue was the result of work from both the sculptor and the nganga (plural baganga), the ritual specialist or healer-soothsayer. The best sculptors were often used to craft community mankishi. The tree was carefully chosen, for example for its healing properties. The felling and sculpting were highly ritual procedures, governed by rules and prohibitions, and were the subject of sacrifices and offerings to win the favour of the spirits. Once the sculptor had made the effigy, the nganga would help activate the nkishi. This activation was made possible through the addition of one or several magic concoctions called bishimba. This magic concoction was placed on vital points, like the head, back or belly, with the umbilical area usually being favoured. The bishimba was made up of a mix of magic, symbolic ingredients, which only the practitioner knew and hand-picked with precision. According to Dunja Hersak, the bishimba recipe could include the villagers’ hair or nails, the umbilical cords of twins, owl feathers, felid claws and warrior bones. How these magic ingredients were selected depended on the expected qualities of the nkishi: properties that were supposed to enhance the object’s effectiveness at thwarting spells. These active, protective, beneficial substances played a key role in fighting off evil spirits and troublemakers, both at an individual and collective level. Without this magic content, the nkishi was powerless. X-tomographic studies of a nkishi statue at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (Inv. 70.2012.29.1.1) have helped shed light on some secrets kept by these effigies that were hitherto unsuspected as unseen by the naked eye. The results did not only revealed the presence of the bishimba substance in the stomach but a considerable system of inner tunnels – particularly a link between the line leading from the navel and the line of the spine – spreading through the inside of the statue like a kind of feeding-tube system for renewing the magic power of the nkishi statue1.

Sometimes the nganga could both sculpt and activate the protective effigy. The nkishi statue’s power was also intrinsically tied to the power of the nganga, whose death could compromise the effectiveness of the statue he had activated.


1 As Christophe Moulherat, head of analyses of collections at the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, explains, “the surprising complexity of the inner network of tunnels that [...] structure [the statue] [...] connect the top of the head, which is traditionally the body’s point of communication with the spirits of ancestors, and all the openings (ears, navel, mouth, rear) via the line of the spinal column. This study therefore revealed a whole level of symbolism in these [hidden] connections, which were never described in literature.”

Personal and community effigies

Although some specialists consider that the purposes of the mankishi depend on regional stylistic variations and not on their size, other studies based on research in the field in the Songye region, like that carried out by Alan P. Merriam and Dunja Hersak, have distinguished two types of Songye mankishi statues: small mankishi statuettes for individual, personal and family use, and larger, so-called community statues for collective use. These larger versions can be over a metre tall are and were designed to protect the whole village from illness, witchcraft and armed conflict. These community mankishi, with a name and distinguished patronymic, would ensure harmony in the community, conservation of the area and fertility among the women.

The activation process and cycle of reincarnation of spirits

Observations in the field have shown that the production and activation rituals followed the lunar calendar and the different harvest cycles so that the nkishi statue’s power would be revived like the fields were revived by the movements of the moon and spirits combined. The statue was activated as part of a night-time ritual during which the effigy would receive its bishimba and symbolic accessories, strengthening its power and evoking the attributes of important ancestors. Some of these accessories were manga, complete with a bishimba or various amulets – usually antidotes – in reference to the protective objects worn daily by chiefs, baganga healer-soothsayers, smiths or hunters, illustrious figures whose qualities and talents were required for the community nkishi statue to be effective.

Songye nkishi and its guardian, 1913-1916. © D.R.
Songye nkishi and its guardian, 1913-1916. © D.R.

This activation process, which had a highly symbolic, cosmogonic dimension relating to the cycle of reincarnation of spirits, took place in the light of a fire, the symbol of the sun and the moon, children of the supreme god Efile Mukulu Mulungu. In Songye myths, the latter gave his children different assignments: he asked the bat Kafulufulu to collect the bikudi spirits of men, the rainbow to capture them and the wind to send them closer to the moon and Venus, in the celestial realm guarded by the star Alderaban, from where thespirits would then leave to be reincarnated on earth. Moreover, like the dual nature of the spirits of the deceased, manga religious objects such as the mankishi could be used both by the nganga healer-soothsayer with beneficial, therapeutic powers and by the ndoshi (plural bandoshi) sorcerer with evil powers. Nevertheless, this duality was shifting and ambiguous, like the sacrifices which had to be carried out by the individual using magic for propitiatory purposes.

While the small, personal mankishi were kept in their owner’s house, the large, community mankishi occupied a place in the centre of the village in a special sanctuary known as shibo ya bwanga, and were placed under the surveillance of a guardian called nkunja, usually an old man or woman. These guardians had powers of clairvoyance and could interpret and pass on messages from the nkishi they guarded. At each new moon, a fertility ritual was organised primarily to renew the powers of the community nkishi. As part of this new-moon ritual, which individual mankishi could also benefit from, the community nkishi was taken from its sanctuary to be placed on the chief’s chair and displayed to the public. Food offerings were made – usually chicken liver and cassava – along with libations of cockerel blood and palm oil, which were supposed to strengthen the bond with ancestors and spirits. Once this was completed, the statue – the effectiveness of which was strengthened for the entire community – was then taken around the whole village, carried using two sticks inserted in the holes made under the armpits allowing it to be raised without being touched. The nkishi statue could also be taken out in public when its guardian warned of a danger perceived during a trance or in a dream.

Gestures and symbolic attributes

Although the patina attests to the many libations performed on this nkishi statue, the sculptural choices involved in its production are also highly meaningful. Furthermore, its accessories and some special materials, highlighting both its visual power and effectiveness, evoke the spirits of the chiefdom’s founders, cosmogonic myths and symbols relating to the bushiki initiation society. Like in the case of the naked skull, raised in its rear section and previously embellished with feathers, animal hides or metal parts, many Songye mankishi statues have lost some or all of their accessories, thereby veiling precious information about their symbolism and history. Photographs from before 2004 show that this nkishi had its fibre skirt and small katundu (plural. tutundu) stick removed between 2002 and 2004, previously attached  to the hips. For François Neyt, the stick or double pestle alludes to a dualistic notion of good and evil in magic practices. According to Vivian Baecke, this accessory is specific to the Kalebwe people’s large community mankishi and was used to determine if the statue’s power was still effective upon the death of the nganga who had activated it. The raffia skirt forms part of the chief’s symbolic insignia, making this nkishi a figure of political and religious authority. The beard is also the preserve of mature men and alludes to the wisdom acquired only through complex life experience.

Metal parts and reference to the primordial ancestor, the blacksmith

The metal parts on the face of the statue, punctuating its gaze, underlining its beard, nose and forehead, embellishing its neck ornaments and closing off its bishimba inserted in an umbilical cavity, allude to the primordial ancestor the blacksmith. The combination of copper and iron, and therefore red and white colours, could also symbolise the two ritual phases of the bukishi initiation society. Songye creation myths were played out in the initiation enclosure of this society, partitioned into different spaces in reference to the earth and the heavens. The small iron parts, sorts of hooks hung from one of the necklaces, could evoke the cycle of reincarnation of spirits and symbolise the hooks mentioned in the creation myth with which Rainbow captured the bikudi of the deceased. This allusion to Rainbow capturing the spirits is underlined in the use of reptile skins filled with bishimba and upholstery nails covering the effigy’s neck rings. Indeed, in the myths, Rainbow could also take on the appearance of a snake. The ringed design of the neck could therefore evoke “the rising ripples, bubbling water, fertilising rain and memory of the python ”.2



2 Neyt, François, Songye : la redoutable statuaire d’Afrique central, Brussels, Fonds Mercator, 2004, p. 295.

Detail of the neck and finery of the Songye nkishi. © musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, photo Claude Germain
Detail of the neck and finery of the Songye nkishi. © musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, photo Claude Germain

Gestures and forms

As vehicles of strong symbolism, positions and postures also express the effigy’s vigilance. Special attention is therefore given to some senses, like sight, hearing and smell. For François Neyt, the almond shape of the eyes “evokes the benevolent world of the new moon and the energy that emanates from within. The half-closed eyes recall moments of transition between day and night when the spirits of the ancestors return […].”3  This insistence on the omniscience of the gaze is underlined in the representation of the pupils, here portrayed by two nails that form the gaze, bringing it to life through a tiny dazzle of metal. The importance of the eyes could also allude to the cosmogonic myths, especially the “hornbill with bulging eyes”, whose  union with the shooting star produced the first man. The accentuated volume of the mouth, characteristic of Kalebwe style, underlines the importance of the message to be conveyed. The mouths of some mankishi were also filled with ritual mixtures, hair and bits of fabric. The ears, intended to receive the imperceptible messages of spirits, here take on a special form. François Neyt explains that “certain effigies even have the ear canal carved straight through the head, intersecting a vertical channel that goes up to the fontanelle.”4 The nose covered with a plate of copper and upholstery nails evokes the importance of smell: ‘the spirit leave and enter via the breath, and the ancestor filters them through the sense of smell.”5 The feet firmly anchored in their base allude to stability, balance and harmony regained in the face of trouble. Lastly, the importance of the protruding belly receiving the bishimba is underlined in the position of the hands, placed on either side of the navel as a sign of protection. The bulge of this belly was typical as it would receive the magic concoction that activated the statue’s power, yet it also evokes pregnancy and, by extension, symbolises fertility and the community’s continuation.


3 Neyt, François, Songye : la redoutable statuaire d’Afrique central, Brussels, Fonds Mercator, 2004, p. 289.
4 Idem, p. 292.

A work of art from central and southern Kalebwe workshops

Songye statuary is characterised by a diverse range of styles. Without precise indications on the origins of works conserved in European collections, it is not always easy to precisely identify the places of creation, particularly due to the movement of peoples. Furthermore, the renown of some baganga and sculptors was such that statues could be ordered from specialists known for their ability to make particularly powerful mankishi. As such, some statues renowned for their effectiveness were used at great distances from their place of production, and sometimes even among neighbouring peoples, including in the court of the Kuba kingdom to the north-west of the Songye region. Despite these attribution difficulties, ethno-morphological studies based on the decorative design and formal characteristics of a large body of Songye mankishi statues have attempted to determine regions of style or workshops associated with particular groups.

This nkishi statue can be associated with the style of the workshops of the central and southern Kalebwe people, one of the main Songye chiefdoms. Kalebwe statuary is easily recognisable and characterised by powerful, geometric forms, shoulders sculpted with almost right-angle flat cuts and a cylindrical, ringed neck. The facial structure is also typical, evoking that of the emblematic kifwebe Songye masks with a rectangular, protruding mouth hollowed out deeply and a robust, triangular nose extending the forehead. The rounded forms at the top of the face and domed forehead, underlined with the curves of the eyebrow arches, contrast with the sharp angles of the lower face, which juts downwards in an extension depicting a beard. For François Neyt, this statue – works similar to which also exist, as do works probably by the same sculptor – “is representative of a workshop that can be located to the north of that of the Bena Nsala, on the right bank of the middle Lomami near Lubao (formerly Sentery).”6



6 Neyt, François, in Joubert, Hélène (dir.), Éclectique : Une collection du XXIe siècle, Paris, musée du Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac; Flammarion, 2016. Neyt, p. 82.

History of the work and its background

This nkishi is one of a large set of six Songye mankishi statues collected between 1934 and 1935 by Dr. Lucien Van Hoorde, originating from the Kalebwe stylistic region between Tshofa and Kabinda. Notes accompanying this collection provide indications alluding to the “secret society ya Ntambwe or ya Nkimo”, as well as the names of figures (ya Wukumkishi, ya Kasongo, ya Thsykudi, ya Muluba, ya Ntambwe and ya Ukimo) with whom the mankishi statues are associated. However, without specific information, these names provided by the documentary notes of Lucien Van Hoorde have not been identified accurately and linked to the corresponding statues. Although its name is not known with certainty, this statue sheds light on identified stylistic attributions and on certain accessories that could be specific to the community mankishi of the Kalebwe people. In 2013, the statue joined the highly selective collection of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, who donated it to the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in 2017. Before then, it had been conserved in several large Belgian collections, including that of Dr. Albert Godart, who owned at least three Kalebwe mankishi brought back by Lucien Van Hoorde.

Selected bibliography and cartography


Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.



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FALGAYRETTES-LEVEAU (Dir.), Initiés du Bassin du Congo, Paris, Musée Dapper, 2013.

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JOUBERT Hélène (Dir.), Éclectique : Une collection du XXIe siècle, Paris, musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ; Flammarion, 2016, pp. 81-83.

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NEYT François, Songye : la redoutable statuaire d’Afrique centrale, Brussels, Fonds Mercator, 2004.

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