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Art and Healing in Africa

How do artworks and objects become powerful and effective for use in healing? Over a long period of time in Africa, as in other parts of the world, people have made and used objects to facilitate healing, good health, and well-being. The global COVID-19 pandemic is prompting change and reflection on many aspects of our daily lives, including the role of the arts to foster healing and grapple with obstacles, moments of transition, and uncertainty. At the Eskenazi Museum of Art, connections between art and healing are also explored in our art therapy and arts-based wellness program.

Artistic practices associated with healing in Africa draw upon a range of objects, including amulets, staffs, sculptures that once held medicinal packs, and divination objects. This essay shares some of the extraordinary ways that artists and healers from different societies in Africa have used such items since the eighteenth century. It brings together ten objects from the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection to explore the relationship between art and healing through connections to powerful materials, belief systems, and divination practices. Although we do not know the names of the individuals who made these objects, they likely held important roles in their communities. Collections Specialist Emma Fulce explains why we don’t often know these artist names in this essay.

Materials and Medicine

Materials can be powerful tools in healing. This gold necklace with an amulet case from Somalia (eighteenth century) illustrates the combined power of materials, actions, and proximity to the body to foster good health (fig. 1). It features an oval-shaped case that could hold paper inscribed with verses from the Qur’an that when worn close to the skin act as a healing amulet. In parts of West Africa that practice Islam, such links between Qur’anic text and the body appear through wearing clothing inscribed with Arabic text and drinking water that has washed over writing boards filled with verses from the Qur’an. The museum also holds pages of Qur’an manuscripts from the Islamic world, including this leaf from a Qur’an written in Kufic script from the ninth–tenth centuries.

Sculptures from areas in Central Africa depicting figures, animals, and non-figural shapes called minkisi (nkisi, sing.) also illustrate connections between materials and healing (fig. 2). Specialists called nganga have used minkisi, also called “power objects,” to aid with community matters and solve problems including health-related issues. What is not visible from the outside of the object—the medicinal materials and graveyard earth inside the sculpture—gives minkisi its power. These interior materials are usually removed before such sculptures enter museum collections to de-activate their power. Nganga sometimes inserted nails and metal pieces into a kind of “power object” called nkisi nkondi to activate communication with the spiritual world (fig. 3). Europeans who visited Central Africa in the nineteenth century misinterpreted such items as “fetishes,” imposing on the objects inaccurate understandings of so-called ritual practices. These European interpretations were informed by, and also shaped, stereotypes of African societies as backward, unchanging, and isolated. What is less acknowledged is that minkisi are sophisticated and complex objects, made using immense specialized knowledge and expertise, that can powerfully facilitate communication with the spiritual world.

A standing wooden figure with a cone shaped head, bent knees and arms attached on the square torso. There are powerful substances in a circle in the center of the torso.
A standing figure with white circles around the eyes. There are metal items placed in the feet, shoulders, and chest.

Figs. 2-3
Artist unidentified. Kongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Power Figure, Nkisi, unknown date. Wood and incrustation, 13 3/8 x 5 x 4 1/8 in. Gift of Frederick Stafford, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 60.7; Artist unidentified. Kongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Power Figure, Nkisi nkondi, 19th-mid 20th century. Wood, iron, and pigment, 40 ½ x 11 ½ x 8 in. Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 77.29


Belief Systems in Healing

Healing through art is closely tied to knowledge and belief systems, including indigenous religions, Christianity, and Islam that are practiced in Africa. In Montol society in northern Nigeria, the Komtin association is dedicated to healing ailments through herbal medicine. Men who belong to Komtin used carved wood sculptures with added pigments—like this female figure from the mid-twentieth century (fig. 4)—for assessing a person’s health and diagnosing illnesses.

A carved human figure, standing with its arms at its sides. The figure has broad shoulders, prominent breasts, a very narrow torso, and wide hips with stocky, short legs.
An iron rod with a circlet with birds perched on it attached to the top by four extensions which support the circlet at four points then join to form a pointed cap which fits over the top on the rod. The end is crowned by a large bird shape above the center of the circlet of birds.
An iron cross with a long handle, terminating in a square shape with a small decoration at the end. The cross has arms of roughly equal length, which flare outward and have decorations at their ends.

Figs. 4–6
Clockwise from top left: Artist unidentified. Montol, Nigeria. Female figure for Komtin Society, ca. 1950. Wood and pigment, 15 1/8 x 4 1/16 x 4 5/8 in. Gift of the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection in memory of Roy Sieber, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2005.13; Artist unidentified. Yorùbá, Nigeria. Staff for Osanyin, Opa Osanyin, 19th-mid 20th century. Iron, 25 1/8 x 9 x 9 7/8 in. Gift of Dr. Joseph L. Sheriden, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 73.75.2; Artist unidentified. Ethiopia. Hand-held cross, unknown date. Iron, 9 x 2 ½ x ¼ in. Gift of Tom Joyce, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2005.321

In Yorùbá society in southwestern Nigeria, this iron staff (19th-mid 20th century) called opa Osanyin is named after Osanyin, the god of health and herbal medicine in Yorùbá belief (fig. 5). The staff is integrated into Ifá divination practices, in which the scope of a Yorùbá diviner’s work includes healing. This staff depicts birds, a symbolic motif in Yorùbá imagery that evokes the revered significance of women elders and ancestors known as “our mothers.”

In Ethiopia, Christianity has been practiced since around the fourth century. Christian priests in Ethiopia would have used iron hand-held crosses like this example (date unidentified) to aide their work in healing (fig. 6). These examples show how certain objects play a significant role to make healing possible.

Healing through Divination

Divination serves individuals and communities facing many different obstacles, including healing of illnesses, and has taken shape in diverse forms across the African continent over time. Women and men who lead divination practices often hold important roles in their communities and are highly regarded for their expertise, wisdom, and ability to aid others. Specific objects play critical roles for diviners to activate communication with ancestors and the spiritual world during divination practices. For example, a diviner in Pende society, in Central Africa, would have used divination instruments called galukoji when meeting with clients, like this example from the mid-twentieth century (fig. 7).

Among Yorùbá communities, diviners called babalawos have led Ifá divination practices for people who consult them for guidance on problems that include health ailments. Still practiced today, Ifá divination is built on extensive knowledge comprising 256 verses to communicate with the spiritual world, especially spirits and deities called orisas. Ifá divination cups (agere Ifá) would hold palm nuts that babalawos throw on divination trays (opon Ifá) covered in white sand (figs. 8 and 9). These objects are central to how babalawos carry out Ifá divination. Through their knowledge of Ifá, babalawos can “read” messages created on the tray to advise their clients.

A circular tray with carved figural decoration around the edges with a head at the top center.
A divination cup with a seated male figure holding up the shallow bowl of the cup. The figure has large and prominant genitals and holds a staff in his left hand.

Figs. 8-9
Artist unidentified. Yorùbá, Nigeria. Ifá divination tray, Opon Ifá, 19th–20th century. Wood, 19 ¾ x 1 ¾ in. Museum purchase with funds from Paula W. Sunderman, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2014.1; Artist unidentified. Yorùbá, Nigeria. Ifá divination cup, Agere Ifá, unknown date. Wood, 6 ½ x 6 ½ x 6 ¾ in. Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 77.34.4


While babalawos have often been positions that men hold, women have led divination practices in other West African societies, including Senufo. For example, this female figure (possibly early 20th century) is associated with Sandogo divination, comprised of women diviners in Senufo communities (fig. 10). The work of Sandogo divination supports other issues beyond healing, but illustrates important gender dynamics in divination practices in West Africa. In sum, these examples show how diverse belief systems have informed artistic production directed toward healing in Africa. The artists, diviners, and other specialists involved in facilitating healing through these objects show the vital role of the arts in nurturing good health and wellbeing.

Allison Martino
Laura and Raymond Wielgus Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and Indigenous Art of the Americas

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Martino, Allison. "Art and Healing in Africa." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020.

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