The more people who participate and believe in the power of a nkisi, the more power it will accrue

The more people who participate and believe in the power of a nkisi, the more power it will accrue. Artist Nkhensani Mkhari started to work on his own family history after his grandmother passed away, with the help of traditional Bantu artifacts like power figures, the kanga, or cosmograms.

The following interview is about Mkhari’s artistic work. In it, we discuss the Bantu culture and the inherent function of the zinkisi (plural of nkisi) from the perspective of an Afro-digital culture.

Mrz 3, 2021

Nkhensani, how did you start engaging with your ancestors‘ religious practices?

You know, I got this impulse last year when my grandma passed away and I started thinking about her legacy and the work that she used to do. Also what she would have liked to see me do and even my own personal self, having like a spiritual calling as an inyanga (doctor or healer), the same as my grandma. It felt like this is the best way to articulate myself. I was tracing my ancestry and have found artifacts along the way, and interfaces like the cosmogram and the kanga, and the nkisi, and all these kind of things. As this happened, I realized that my grandma was actually »eating« me, and she’s showing me her skills.

I am engaged in excavating and preserving lost artifacts of our ancestry. Personally, I felt I had lost all knowledge of it. But if I have access to this knowledge, I have access to the functioning of these interfaces and objects. I have always thought about zinkisi and how there is something like a banishment that was carried out by the European schools and scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the form of empiricism, rationalism, and positivism. They introduced the argument against fetishism, because of the Enlightenment: It says reason is the main source of knowledge. And that’s why these artifacts are relegated to museums and storage rooms all over the world. We’ve been sort of dispossessed of them in Africa. I just wanted to reincarnate the nkisi and put them in front of the world again for people to actually understand what they are.

»They’re not these repugnant or ugly things that have no meaning. They actually have power. They’re power objects.«

And basically this body of work speaks to the notion that this is a powerful object, and it should not be forgotten. When you don’t speak about something, you create a chance for it to reemerge. And I just can’t imagine a world in which we forget about where we’re from, as Bantu. It’s part of our collective history by proxy of colonization, and of globalization. Why is it excluded from popular history? Why is it a given that people consider them violent, burn them, and think that they are evil?


How does it work?

When a community or an individual has a problem, they go to a local sculptor and that sculptor will call the nkisi. The nkisi is then covered with different sort of poses or gestures. Right. So every nkisi has a gesture. Maybe one will have its hands on its waist, maybe one will have its arm up. You take the sculpture. At the moment you get it from the sculptor, it has no power yet. When you take it from the sculptor, you take it to a inyanga, or witch doctor. And when you get there, the you tell the witch doctor what your problem is and what issue or issues you might have. The inyanga will take these herbs or different substances called bilongo and put them in the stomach of the nkisi. There’s a hole where the belly is and they’ll insert those substances attributed to the problem. You have different substances for different problems and they’ll put those substances in there and then close the stomach. Then they insert different incantations against your problems by putting nails into the sculpture.

»You know, the more people think something has power, the more power it will have.«

You can imagine, you guys in Germany have a lot of zinkisi in your museums, and some of them have lots of nails. Some of them have few nails. The more nails, the more problems are incanted into that object. In English terms, that decodes activation. You’re activating the nkisi. When considering the effectiveness of objects of power, questions of meaning arise, and meaning is inherent in an object.

People give the object meaning. It’s attributed by people, and if the meaning of a particular object like nkisi is identified with power, then power has been attributed to the object. It speaks of these ideas of consensual attribution.

You know, the more people think something has power, the more power it has. I think that’s relevant for individuals and communities. We attribute power to objects. It’s not inherent in the objects. If we lose consensus on the power of an object, the objects lose their power to sort out what has happened with zinkisi, which have left the continent or have been burnt down. And we’ve moved into this ecclesiastical Protestant era of Christianity and being Muslim and all of these other religions, and lost our African religion.

So the question that this brings up is creating nkisi as an inyanga as the witch doctor, it will be embedded with power.  And it speaks to the materiality, you know? The Internet and spirituality have these sorts of similar traits in terms of the digital as intangible. You can’t touch it. The digital exists in this liminal space, and spiritualities function very much in a similar way. Art and spirituality or religion, function and symbolism; even cinema functions and symbolism. All these things have the same apparatus. It’s like there’s an intersectionality that can happen. I think that’s where the religion comes in.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The more people who participate and believe in the power of a nkisi, the more power it will accrue

From aquatic space to terrestrial space to cyberspace – so the nkisi is like an advanced technology?

In that intersection the digital form of the artwork Zibuyile Zinkisi becomes a Trojan horse for the spiritual object, for the subject of power. The digital version of the nkisi is actually a real nkisi, because it is related to a consensual agreement. When you attribute power to something, then it has power. That’s how African spirituality works. If you think someone is bewitching you and you believe in the power of their witchcraft, then you’re bewitched. But if you think their powers can’t work on you, they don’t work.

The inspiration for this kind of thinking came from a work that I did in 2018. This work was called image of transcription. I took two photographs. Through the process of sonification, I made it possible to hear the photographs, just by transferring image data into sound data. The conceptual framework behind that work explored our evolution as human beings throughout global history. If we use African history, it evolved from water. Although in Africa, the evolution from water is metaphorical, because tribes speak of coming from the ancient lost land of Mu, which was in the ocean. And it sank, similar to the story of Atlantis. The only tribe in South Africa that says they’re not from Mu is the Zulu tribe, which says they come from outer space. Even the word Zulu means »up.« Zulu means people of the sky. They’re the only tribe that doesn’t consider themselves as people from Mu. In the West, coming from water is taken in a very rational way. It’s like we evolved from aquatic to terrestrial creatures. In Africa, it’s just a metaphor of us moving from Mu to Africa and all these other places. The body of work explored the evolution from aquatic space to terrestrial space and then sound and sonification, because it was a digital sort of manipulation, like a digital extraction from the pictures. I shot these pictures on the phone. It’s a very analogue medium. I translated them into a digital medium, not as photographs, but as sound.

»It’s a new dimension. I don’t think humanity understands what we’ve created with the internet.«

That was a metaphor for this evolution from aquatic space to terrestrial space to cyberspace. As an artist, I posit that cyberspace is real space, because it affects terrestrial space as if it weren’t affecting terrestrial space, if people were not getting dysmorphia from social media or depression from social media. If there wasn’t fake news and propaganda that affects the 3D, tangible world, then the internet would not be a real space. But it’s a real space because what happens there can spill over into our daily lived experiences. Me placing this power object on the internet is sort of reaffirming.

So there are no perceptible limits in your daily dealings with analog or digital media?

It is an affirmation of the internet as a real space, where nkisi can exist and its power can spill over into the real world and the lived experience. It’s a new dimension. I don’t think humanity understands what we’ve created with the internet. You know, it’s accelerated time. If you look at it from a Moore’s Law perspective, it is accelerated faster than we have as a society. We are dealing with a state of perpetual war, collective trauma, collective amnesia on a global scale, right? And, in South Africa, we’re dealing with issues like gender-based violence and high crime rates and serious corruption in the government, and it’s like we’ve created these advanced technologies that are more advanced than us. Technology is evolving faster than people, evolving faster than the humanities and psychologies, and most of these are evolving faster than the law.  It’s developing faster than our government, faster than our civilization. So what does that mean for the future? At the moment we are in the Internet of Things, and we’re shifting into the internet of the body, it’s sort of like we’re already cyborgs. Our phones are like prosthetics to us. And me, I would put a phone on the same level as a nkisi. Both of those things for me are the same interface, in the sense that they store information and that they connect two different spaces together. We’re in different time zones, different climates, land gradients, values, but somehow we’re able to connect right now. Nkisi has the same attributes in the sense that it connects the spiritual world to the physical world and the physical and the spiritual world is very different from the physical world.

So technology dreams of being magic.

Nkisi doesn’t use a battery or coltan or cobalt mined in Ghana. It uses these elements that we use as sangomas (healers or fortunetellers). We do use coltan and cobalt and quartz and gold.  And those are some of the materials will even put inside of the nkisi into its stomach because of problems, because of this connection that we want to create between these two worlds. It is might as well be a phone in a way. The mentalistic point of view that came from Europe when Africa was colonized; the scholars, like, looked at Africa and they took for granted our belief as Africans and objects of power, and they took it as proof of our savagery, barbarism, and primitive state of mind; as evidence of our early stage of development, you know. But it was a fallacy, because from my experience dealing with these objects and these interfaces, I realize their nkisi are so much more advanced than even the traditional medicine we use now in Africa. In that whole process, the practitioner or the witch doctor doesn’t even touch your body or give you any medicine to take through your mouth. All of it happens through nkisi.

The nkisi takes the medicine, gets the incantations and and puts nails in it. You leave it behind; it never touches your body. This is advanced technology, from my perspective. I’ve seen real evidence in my life. When I was a child, two old women came into my grandmother’s house, into her yard, and one woman was injured. She had bruises on her face. And I wondered, what’s happening to this lady? I snuck and followed and listened through the window. And what was happening was this lady was barren. Basically, she couldn’t get pregnant. Her husband was beating her because she couldn’t get pregnant and this was embarrassing her in front of the village. She was desperate to get pregnant, and came to my grandma. My grandma touched her belly for a moment and lifted  and told her to go home. And the next year, when I came back to my grandmother’s house around the same time, this lady walked into the yard, this time not with bruises and marks on her face, but with a baby in her arms. So my belief in magic and in the power that Africans have and a power that has been overlooked, and I feel like a power that’s rising again right now. With the chaos that’s happening elsewhere, Africans are stepping into their power, and I think these artifacts are advanced technologies.

What Saint-Simon and August Comté created when they created empiricism was grounded by Kant’s findings that only empirical science could produce reliable knowledge. That is the war we’re fighting. Who gets to create knowledge? What knowledge is accepted? Animism was thrown out the window and everything as far as our history was relegated as foul. This, in my own personal opinion, is wrong. Comté is wrong. I don’t even know how to pronounce his name, but he’s wrong. His law of three stages is wrong in Africa; we have four stages based on the dikenga cosmogram, which consists of four points symbolic of the four positions of the sun. We call it the four moments of the sun. The four points and quadrants are divided by a vertical (mukula) and horizontal (kalûnga) line. The four points are assigned ontological meaning: musoni (rebirth), kala (birth), tukula (life), and lastly luvemba (death). All living things go through these four stages, in fact, dikenga is believed to be the energy of the universe, the creative force behind existence. And there is a global philosophy that dominates academies, dominates our schools, philosophy departments, and humanities departments. It’s heartbreaking to be relegated to fantasy and a myth when something is real for you.

As part of the »Muntu Maxims« Web Residency, Nkhensani Mkhari has provided a 3D model of a nkisi – a sacred object inhabited by a spirit and often possessing healing powers – for you to print or create on your own using the material of your choice.

Instructions on how to activate the nkisi can be found here: Zibuyile Zinkisi

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