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Kongo Wooden Nkisi Nkondi Sculpture

SKU PF.5125
Circa 20th Century AD
Dimensions 22.75″ (57.8cm) high
Medium Wood
Origin Southwestern Congo


This superb sculpture is an nkisi nkondi figure, made by the Kongo people of what was once Zaire. It is a standing man, with an oversized head, an open mouth, glazed eyes and one arm upraised. The whole body is irregularly pierced with hundreds of iron nails and other objects, with organic and ferrous elements attached to them (see below). The centre of the chest bears two eminences that hold magical materials; in religious terms, this was the most important part of the sculpture, which only served as a receptacle for the bilongo’s spiritual power.

The Kongo (or Bakongo) people live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and the Congo. They lived in a series of loosely- connected yet autonomous kingdoms, which were modified by tribal warfare from neighbouring regions and the arrival of the Portuguese. The kingdom absorbed European traditions and religion while retaining much of their indigenous culture intact. Indigenous Kongo society was based around the kingship model.

Their religious beliefs have a far wider circulation, and are based around a reverence for the dead who are believed to be able to assist in the determination of future destinies. They are also believed to inhabit minkisi/nkisi charms that can be appealed to for assistance in times of duress. This is the most notable form. Nkisi Nkondi figures – often referred to as nail fetishes – are endowed with a magical “charge” (bilongo) made from vital substances such as earth from an important person’s grave, or bodily elements from fierce animals (i.e. leopards) or abnormal humans such as epileptics. The figures are insulted and “hurt” with explosions and nails so that they will carry out the wishes of their tormentor. Some bear small bundles of textile or other organic material referred to as “dogs” – these direct the vengeful spirits to the correct source, so a fragment of goat hair tied to the nkisi would ensure that the spirit hunted down the thief who had taken the animal.

This is an especially aggressive example in terms of facial expression, and the use of glass in the eyes and double bilongo. The bimpangula vocabulary of sculptural gestures states that this figure is standing in a pose known as “telama lwimbanganga” – literally, “standing against power”. It means that the plaintiff’s enemies no longer have access to him/her, and that the figure is a wall or barrier between them and any further harm. The right hand would have held a sceptre of power or a weapon. He is riddled with nails, blades and miscellaneous metalwork which were driven into him as individual prayers, often with organic materials or other objects – including an iron ring – attached.

This is a striking piece of Kongo magical paraphernalia, and an outstanding piece of African art in its own right.


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