|Nail fetish figures - Boma, Congo 1902
|Nkondi or Nkonde nail fetish
(The plural form is minkondi and minkisi)
Fetishes were protective figures used by individuals, families, or whole communities to destroy or weaken
evil spirits, prevent or cure illnesses, repel bad deeds, solemnize contracts or oath-taking, and decide
arguments. A diviner or holy person would activate the statue, using magical substances. Fetishes gained
power and were effective because people believed in them.
The nkondi are the most powerful of the nkisi. They were used to identify and hunt down unknown
wrongdoers such as thieves, and people who were believed to cause sickness or death by occult means.
They were also used to punish people who swore false oaths and villages which broke treaties. To inspire
the nkondi to action, it was both invoked and provoked. Invocations, in bloodthirsty language, encouraged
it to punish the guilty party. It would also be provoked by having gunpowder exploded in front of it, and
having nails hammered into it. They were also used to literally "hammer out agreements"...with clear
implications as to what would happen to people who broke the agreements.
I currently do not have a Kongo nail fetish figure in my collection.
The information and images below are for reference purposes.
Click on any picture to see larger version.
|Below is one of my favorite pieces.
It is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY
|Additional information and examples
|Magic is practiced throughout Black Africa, but there are distinctions to be made among those who participate in it. The witch doctor is seen as
someone who undertakes on his own account a personal communication with evil powers -suspected of casting spells, he is feared and rejected as the
most dangerous individual in the tribe. The accusation of sorcery is a serious one.
The diviner, or fetishist, operates in principle for the good of all. His help is sought in times of need, for he is seen as the mediator between members of
the tribe and all the powers of darkness. For this reason he also acts as healer.
The various attempts to influence the fearsome powers of the supernatural through the mediation of statues or fetishes have acquired particular
intensity in the regions round the mouth of the River Congo, home of the Kongo, Yombe and Vili tribes, and this is also the case in the east of Zaire,
among the Songye.
Magical objects were for many years little known in Europe, as Christian missionaries working in Africa tracked them down and had them burnt. Certain
statues which were brought back to Europe by religious men, allegedly for documentation, were kept in secret and could not be studied. They were
much feared for they seemed, even to European eyes, to have real power, a belief almost universally accepted in 17th-century Europe. Olfert Dapper
was the first to look dispassionately at these "fetish" objects and to dare to describe them.
Recent work has led to a better understanding. They are wooden carvings, either anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, which are covered with a variety of
objects such as nails or metal blades. The cavities in their back or stomach contain "medicines" - grains, hairs, teeth or fingernails - which are held
together with various binding materials. Pieces of fabric, feathers or lumps of clay are sometimes present. Finally, bits of mirror, shiny metal or shells
are used to close the cavities or to mark the eyes (fig. 131). Very often the faces alone are carved in detail, while the rest of the body - destined to be
hidden under these various additional features - is sculpted more summarily (fig 140). The figure's genitals may even be missing, either because they
have never been carved or because they have been removed by a zealous missionary.
These figures have only a remote ancestral connection and they are distinguished from reliquaries by the absence of skulls or large bones, although
some may sometimes fit into either category.
Generally grouped as Nkisi, they were the result of the combined work of two men, the carver and the fetishist. The former created the shape, but
without the latter (the Nganga) the figure had no meaning. It was the Nganga who filled it with magic substances and completed the rituals which gave it
|Click on image to see
|Figure 131 Nail fetish.
Wood, nails and metal blades, with assorted materials.
Musees royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels.
|Large nailed statues, the "Nkonde" or "Nkondi"
All statues possessed magical powers but their roles varied according to their size. The largest, the Nkonde standing between 0.90 and 1.20 meters high,
appeared at collective ceremonies and were pierced with nails or metal blades. More of these were added after each vow of commitment, in order to give
the illiterate public a way of ratifying their action. The fetishist acted first to "awaken" the Nkonde with his touch - part of the surface was left of nails for this
purpose - and then a sharp blade or nail was set into the body of the statue, to remain there until the contract was completely fulfilled.
The fetishist was primarily a witness, and an important one in view of his supposed relationship with the world of the supernatural. Woe to anyone who
failed to keep his promise! The Nkonde, as guardian of collective memory, would inflict sudden sickness on any defaulter, or even bring about his death,
but he protected the innocent. The Nkonde's face is always aggressive and deliberately terrifying; the mouth is always open, as if shouting a warning to
the person making a vow. Was that person also required to chew or lick the nails? The fact that a tongue is occasionally visible may suggest this, although
there is no concrete evidence.
In the presence of a Nkonde there is greater interplay of glances. There is the Nkonde's gaze, his metallic eyes seeming to transfix the man who takes an
oath, and following him through space and time. And in return this man is held fascinated and cannot detach his gaze from the fragment of mirror on the
Nkonde's stomach which conceals the supposedly magical substances, hiding their striking poverty and hinting at their power. Once again African
traditions manage to bring considerable natural and wholly psychological powers into play, operating through the manipulation of relatively meager
Depending on the statue's attributes or regional variations - factors which remain uncertain - the physical attitudes of the Nkonde might differ. Those
holding a weapon in their raised right arm (fig. 133 below) are the most dynamic, but the figures with their hands on their hips and with their beards of clay
and resin are clothed in majesty. Finally, there are many with their hands set close to their navel, a possible reference to their lineal origins.
Surprisingly, some animal forms of Nkonde also have certain features similar to human statues. The Crouching monkey (fig. 134 below), with open mouth
and eyes fixed on its human brothers, is firmly classed among the animals by his bent stance, long arms and realistic fur - yet this makes it particularly
disturbing. Two-headed dogs have also been found (fig. 135 below). Each muzzle has the traditional lolling tongue. Their role, as with real living dogs,
appears to have been to protect families and give warning of danger.
Professor Th. Obenga, director general of Gabon's international centre of Bantu civilizations, offers interesting details on the social role of the Nkonde in
his article in Dossiers d'archeologie. He sees the nails as "nails of malediction". And, extending the debate, he adds: "The principal role of the Nkonde is to
engender respect for the country's laws, to aid the reign of civic peace, to seek out and denounce thieves and to wreak vengeance on wrongdoers". On
the Nganga (fetishist) he offers a soundly baed opinion: "These are skillful and intelligent men. Their historic skills, their extended knowledge of both fauna
and flora, of the environment, the group and psychology, gave them, and still give them, powerful ascendancy over the minds of the people and over the
imagination of society as a whole."
|Click on image to see
|Figure 133 Sculpture covered with nails. Nkonde.
Lower Zaire. Yombe, Wood, nails, wooden spear and fabric. H; 97 cm.
Musee Barbier-Mueller, Geneva.
|NAIL FIGURE (Nkisi Nkondi)
Yombe group, Kongo peoples, Shilango River area,
Zaire, i9th century Wood, metal, raffia cloth, pigment, clay, resin, cowrie shell
H. 44 1/2 in. (113 cm)
Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago
Figures like this one are called minkisi minkondi (sing., nkisi nkondi) and are essentially containers for powerful magical/medicinal
ingredients (bilongo). Such figures are used in healing or jural contexts (Bassani 1977, 36; Isaki in MacGaffey 1977, 173;
Thompson 1978, 207—8).
An nkisi nkondi is made by a sculptor and an nganga (ritual expert) working together. The sculptor carefully carves a nude male
figure, an animal, or another form. Next, the nganga completes the figure by placing the ingredients that have positive or negative
powers around its chin, creating a "beard," and in an abdominal or other cavity made by the sculptor. The iron blades, nails,
screws, and, in this example, machine parts are driven into the figure during use.
An nkisi nkondi may be used for many purposes. For example, upon concluding peace between two warring villages,
representatives from both sides would first take an oath before the nkisi nkondi, and then each party would hammer iron wedges
or a knife into the figure and fire a salute. Or, an oath sworn before the nkisi nkondi would make a title search on real estate
unnecessary because with the driving in of a piece of iron, the title to the land would be secured through the generations (Laman
1957, 159-60). Or, a blade could be driven into the figure to activate its magical powers.
This figure was obtained in 1907 from W. D. Webster, a London dealer in ethnographica.
|Click on image to see
|134 Nkisi statuette of a crouching monkey.
People's Republic of the Congo. Vili, Konso. Wood, iron, glass and
skin. H: 35 cm. Rijksmuseum voor Voikenkunde, Leyden.
(Photo: Musee Dapper, Paris.)
The small size of this statuette places it in the Nkisi category, although
the nails would indicate an Nkonde figure.
|Click on image to see
|Figure 135 Sculpture of a two headed dog covered with nails
Lower Zaire, Kongo.
Hardwood, nails, and iron blades. H:67.5 cm
Musee Barbier-Mueller, Geneva.
|CONGO: Fetish, mixed media, 18th-19th century, Musee du Louvre, Paris
The small statues, the Nkisi, (fig. 136) were less ambitious than the large Nkonde and were designed for the individual or the family.
Never more than 40 centimeters tall and without nails, they often had a feathered hat on their head after they had been consecrated by
the fetishist. The fabrics wrapped round them were covered with a crusting of red powder. As with the Nkonde, they had a cavity in their
back or stomach which held "medicines" and magic substances placed there by the fetishist. These consisted essentially of white clay
from the marshes, red clay used for ancestor worship, and tukula (sawdust from red wood).
These Nkisi were supposed to protect their owner's health and transmit to him the vital strength with which they were endowed. The
owner could give them offerings to escape from difficult situations.
From "Black Africa" by Laurie Meyer
|Click on image to see
|Figure 136 Wood statuette.
H: 36 cm
With ritual cockerel feathers on its head, this Nkisi statue carries a load
of particularly important magical materials on its back.
|A Sotheby's piece
with information below
|A FINE AND RARE KONGO OATH TAKING AND HEALING FIGURE
LOCATION ESTIMATE AUCTION DATE
New York 150,000—250,000 USD Session 1 - 17 May 02 10:15 AM
Lot Sold. Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 202,000 USD
height 31in. 78.7cm.
nkisi nkondi, standing on wedge-shaped feet and straight legs, with one arm raised and the other akimbo, the body
pitched foward, a fragmentary magic bundle attached at the torso, the large head with square jawline, tapering chin
and full lips, beneath the naturalistic nose and almond-shaped eyes inset with glass, and wearing a fiber necklace
with magic substance suspended from the neck, the whole inset with numerous pegs and iron nails of various
shapes; aged and weathered patina with blackening and encrustation at the face.
Probably Governor Vewhilgen, gift from Chief Nembao(?) before 1900, near Banane/Osolongo area
Musée de la Porte de Hal, by 1902
Royal Museum of Central Africa, Tervuren, no. 6685, Gift of H. Janssen
Baron Freddy Rolin, New York and Brussels
Sotheby's, New York, January 20, 1982, lot 257
Bulletin des Musées Royaux, 'Musée de la Porte de Hal', No. 12, September 1902
Maes, Fetischen of Tooverbeelden wit Kongo 1935: Volume II, plate IV, nos. 1 and 2
Lehuard, 1980: 44, figure 17
New York, The Museum for African Art, Face of the Gods: Art and Altars from Africa and the African Americas,
September 24, 1993-January 9, 1994
Based on a letter from A. Maesen, then director of the Royal Museum of Central Africa, Tervuren, dated December
23, 1977, we can infer the probable early collection date of the offered lot based on the Musée du Porte Hal's
accession records. A collection date before 1900 is further supported by the 1902 article on Musée de la Porte du
Hal, illustrating this figure.
Lehuard places this nkisi in the corpus of Woyo power figures from the area of Banana/Solongo at the mouth of the
Kongo River (1980: 45).
The figure shows an 'oath taking' gesture, with one arm upraised. At one point the figure probably held a blade, or
baaka, an ancient kind of knife used for extracting the milk of the palm wine tree, in the upraised arm. The blade was
believed to have the power to kill by supernatural means, and analogously, the word baaka as a verb, meant not
only to extract wine, but to demolish or destroy (Thompson 1978: 216-217).
As described by Lehuard (1980: 135), the unusual black face, is seen less often than red or white pigment on nkisi.
While white pigment is symbolic of death, black depicts life. Black is also the color that mourners (principally women)
coat themselves with to show that the deceased has not died, but rather their passing has changed the way of life.
The pigment is made from the ashes of a family's hearth mixed with palm wine oil.
See Newton and Waterfield (1995: 160) for a closely related female nkisi figure in the oath-taking gesture with a
naturalistic face covered in black in the collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva.
|Property of a Private Collector
Sotheby's Nov 24, 1992 Lot 118
A Superb Kongo Oath-taking and Healing Figure,
the powerfully sculpted figure standing with each foot supported on an individual rectangular base, the left hand held to the hip and the right hand
raised originally holding a spear, now missing, the sensitively carved up-tilted face with large oval eyes, each inset with a glass plaquette, each eye
also with white kaolin and black and reddened pupil and iris, the protruding mouth with sensitive lips and with red cloth contained in the interior, the
raised eyebrows with incised chevron decoration, the top of the head comprising a section of coconut covered with fetish material (bilongo) inset with
sections of horn, a steel chain and cloth attachments, with lumps of fetish material (bilongo), set on the shoulders and back, a large lump of fetish
material, originally covered with a mirror inset, covering the abdomen, the shoulders, arms and top of the chest entirely covered with nails, a
spearhead embedded in the front of the chest, both ears pierced with metal rings, cloth attachments around the ankles, right wrist, left elbow and
crown; aged reddish brown with significant patina. Height 23 in. (58'/2 cm.)
Hans Coray, Agnusso
Count Jean Jacques de Launoit, Brussels (Sotheby's
London, June 23, 1981, Cover and Lot 189)
Meisterwerke, 1968, fig. 81, illus.
As stated by Thompson, 1988, referring to another Kongo figure in a similar posture: "This splendid image symbolizes legal discourse written in wood
and iron. To decode the meaning of the blades and nails is to expand our understanding of the world of the famed lawcourts of Kongo. Each blade or
nail is a mambu. A mambu is a legal matter or problem, nailed-in, literally and metaphorically, in the search for restitution of what is right and just,
between two or more parties.
An nkondi of this quality might have been carried to the top of a hill by its priest, accompanied by the opposing parties in a lawsuit or a treaty. The
summit of the hill was a point in cosmos of great importance. It symbolized 'the place of perfection', the level of noon, the level of the second moment
of the sun, where all is ascendency, appropriately underscoring and inspiring the proceedings. There, before nkondi, both parties would swear by
blades driven into the image to keep certain vows-never to wage war against their neighbors, never to fight again over a neighboring clan's territory,
or many other issues as well. It remained the responsibility of the priest of the image to keep track of every blade and nail and the precise legal
understanding hammered into perpetuity by the koma mambu [nail-the-issue] process.
The right hand of the nkondi is especially stylized. The circle formed by the fingers represents the world; the upraised thumb indicates the realm of
heaven. Like the thumbs-down gesture of ancient Rome, it was a sign of doom for the convicted felon or the guilty party to a trial, meaning sky and
world are now against you. The world of the convicted felon would soon be pierced, even as the fingers often circled round a lance or dagger. Equally
interesting are the pinpoint pupils. These form what might be termed an ocular gesture, meaning nkondi views the solutions, and the punishments
adhering to the trials from afar, from beyond the forest, from beneath the river. As nkondi thinks from this distant source of ancestral justice, the
pupils of his eyes are said to become small dots, as if carried to a kind of vanishing point, on the horizon between this world and the next.
Thus the metaphors of moral preoccupation embedded in this sterling image not only actualize the powerful connotations of the law/courts which
surround zinkondi in Kongo, but also establish a field of valences that are still very much a part of the classical religion of Kongo as practiced among
blacks in Cuba and in certain black hispanic barrios of New York and Miami. There, initiates into palo mayombe are conceptually "nailed," with
crossed blades and wedges of sacred wood, as they take their vows, precisely as if they were zinkondi conjured into fiesh. Moreover, when the
followers of the Kongo religion in Havanna, New York and Miami receive their master medicines, the grand minkisi called prendas, we frequently find
that each medicine-vessel is 'nailed' with inserted twigs and sticks and blades precisely in the manner of zinkondi. Thus the image and zinkondi like it
expand our understanding of a living religion, not something exotic and extinct. Zinkondi form a kind of visual inquiry into the power of words, both
spoken and visual, to protect us from all evil, which sometimes means protecting us from ourselves."
|Below is one of my favorite Kongo power figures
|Property from the Rosenberg Collection 110 A FINE KONGO POWER FIGURE
height 11 1/2-in. 29cm
estimate $30,000-40,000 SOLD for $45,000
nkisi, standing on a circular base, the finely rendered feet beneath ankles encircled by brass rings, the legs with
articulated knees supporting the torso with a mirrored bundle affixed with resin at the center, the right arm to the
side, the left arm fragmentary and inset with tiny metal blades, the neck encircled by power materials beneath the
upturned head with full, parted lips, naturalistic nose and large, glass eyes leading to the backswept crown wrapped
in fiber and surmounted by feathers; fine aged and varied deep brown patina with areas of camwood powder.
J. J. Klejman, New York
Acquired from Pace Gallery, New York, December 1976
This figure exhibits a sensitive combination of expressionism and pathos. Kongo power figures, nkisi, were used in
cooperation with a spiritual healer, nganga, to invoke positive and negative forces on behalf of a client seeking his
services. The power invested in the figure could either relieve the family of a burden or, in turn, place a burden on
one's enemies. The stance, with hand on hip, together with the upturned head, is a typical gesture displaying
confrontation and confidence. The nganga would magically charge the figure with various effective materials,
creating a series of accumulations over time. The bundle at the abdomen, for instance, incorporated 'a mirror of
mystic vision, indicating the ritual expert's power to see beyond the glassy surface of the river, or the sea [beneath
which the underworld lies] to penetrate the secrets of the dead' (Thompson in Vogel 1981: 210). This figure is
unusual in that the left arm appears to have been removed or amputated, with a resinous bundle and a series of
small blades inserted at the tip.
Cf. Roy (1992: 125, figure 84) for a related figure from the Stanley Collection.
|CLICK HERE to go to the article
Kongo Nail Fetishes from the Chiloango River Area
By Ezio Bassani
CLICK HERE to go to the article
Nkisi Figures of the Lower Congo
by Zdenka Volavkova - 1972
It's an EXCELLENT article
Both articles have a lot of additional examples and information