Smithsonian Collections


Image for Whistle
Data Source
National Museum of African Art
Label Text
From a functional viewpoint, this whistle is illustrated upside down; the musician would have blown across the wide opening of the antelope horn. The alert animal is the visual focus and likely refers to a Kongo proverb, but with the surface worn smooth from handling, identification of the subject is uncertain. Indeed, there may be some deliberate obscurity, since knowledge of spiritual forces is not for a casual viewer.
The flat face is hard to define--almost human, with a nose rather than a muzzle--but the crouching body is that of an animal. It has neither the horns of an antelope nor the tail and handlike paws of a monkey, animals found on other whistles. A logical and probable identity is a dog, with body poised and ears pricked, waiting for the hunt to begin.
The Kongo say that dogs have "four eyes"--two for this world and two for the other. As domestic animals, dogs are at home in the village, the land of the living. As hunting dogs, they go into the forest, the home of the dead. While whistles are used as hunter's signals by many African peoples, including the Kongo, there is another type of hunt with a more elusive quarry that reflects the special classification of the dog in Kongo thinking about the world of spirits. A whistle owned by a ritual specialist, or nganga, would be part of the public performance that occurs when he activates the spiritual forces contained in his nkisi, a container that sometimes takes the form of a figure and holds magical and medicinal substances. The dog in this context would symbolize the ability to control spiritual forces and, more particularly, skill at tracking witches, beings that intend harm to another. The whistle would be considered part of the nkisi and could be worn by the nganga, hung on the carved wood nkisi figure or incorporated into its bundle of medicines. Nsiba, the Kongo name for this type of whistle, comes from the verb "siba," which literally means to call on a nkisi.
A signed wood base (not illustrated) carved by the sculptor Inagaki indicates that this whistle was in Paris in the 1920s. It was in the collection of Dr. Stephen Chauvet, the author of a number of pioneering works on central African music and medicine.
Whistle in two parts with (a) being the whistle finial decorated in the shape of a quadraped (probably a dog) and (b) as the whistle mouthpiece and sound box. The whistle's mount is a signed Inagaki wood base.
Stephen Chauvet, Paris, probably before 1929 to 1950
Maurice Ratton, Paris, ca. 1950
Private collection, ca. 1965 to ca. 1985
Anthony Slayter-Ralph, Santa Barbara, ca. 1985 to 1991
Exhibition History
Healing Arts, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 2016 - June 26, 2019
Artful Animals, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., July 1, 2009-July 25, 2010
BIG/small, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., January 17-July 23, 2006
Published References
National Museum of African Art. 1999. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 121, no. 82.
Kongo artist
Late 19th-early 20th century
Credit Line
Museum purchase
Wood, duiker antelope horn
H x W x D: 17.8 x 3.15 x 2.5 cm (7 x 1 1/4 x 1 in.)
Musical Instrument
See more items in
National Museum of African Art Collection
Object number
Loango region, Congo
Object Name
Hunter's whistle