Nkisi, Nora, and Nuance

Apr 16, 2010

While sitting in the Africa gallery of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts recently, I was struck by the Nkisi--a sculpted wood figure of the Congo in which every blade, every nail represented an oath, agreement, or episode in village history. It was believed that when an oath was violated or crime committed against the community, the Nkisi helped in carrying out the criminal's punishment. Amidst the vacant eyes of the ancient masks, walking sticks, Diviners artifacts, and maternity figures of the gallery, the Nkisi captured, for me, the strongest sense of continuity in its' quest to honor the integrity of a community.

The essence of Nora Chipaumire's work seems to capture a similar sense of continuity and impassioned call for a return to such integrity--of adding to the layers, blades, and nails an ongoing dialogue with her ancestry. While the Nkisi tradition has its' roots north of Chipaumire's native Zimbabwe, the sentiment still holds a resonance in seeking to understand the human experience across borders, time, and bodies. We hold the truths and oaths the Nkisi is infused with in our bodies--Nora will be evidence of this when she takes the Northrop stage. Here is a body, not a wooden sculpture, imbibed with the memories, promises, betrayals, and possibility of a village of soul.

In this way, we all speak the nuance of Nkisi. No translator or diviner necessary.

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