The object you see above, a late 19th century Nkisi Nkondi power figure from a place now either in Congo or Angola, is one of many objects used in a collaboration between the art museum and medical school of a prominent Ivy League college. (Hint: it is the only one of them not in a slum)
The program, “The Art of Clinical Observation”, endeavors to exhort med students to “learn to look”, and employs a five step approach. First, closely observe. What is it made of…? Second, analysis. Without reading the label, think about what you see. What are the nails for?
Third, research. Read the label. Does it reinforce or surprise? Fourth, interpret. What does it tell you about art and culture? Fifth, critical assessment and response. How well do you think it served its purpose and – you’re no more or less human than those for whom it was made, what emotions does it evoke in you?
Evaluations of the program have been very positive and participants found it to have been very useful in their lives more broadly. There are many “Learning to Look” efforts in art museums across the country and this was not the first collaboration with a med school, but is apparently one of few.
A Nkisi is created through a collaboration between a sculptor and a shaman. The first carves and the second adds the spiritual strength. Such objects were possessed of considerable force and power and were used for redress and revenge by victims of crimes ranging from theft to adultery.
A dormant Nikisi would be awakened by verbal harassment and the driving of a nail into its body. Its spiritual power would obtain from materials contained in medicine packs in the head and abdomen which could include such stuff as dirt from a grave, herbs, and minerals.
The victim, with the help of ritual experts, would then be able to direct the Nkisi’s awakened fury to the great dismay of the perp who should expect to have some sort of pestilence visited upon him. Very interesting. Brings to mind thoughts of the evolution of consciousness and religion.
Take away for me though is a reinforced appreciation of the incredible relationship between mind and body. I have little doubt about a Nkisi’s intercessional efficacy and, uh, Lord help me should roommate get her hands on one of those things.
*Dr Seuss/last clue.
**Lesley Wellman, the Curator of Education at this museum and person who developed this program, was named the National Art Educator of the Year for 2912 by the National Art Education Association.