Wonderfully bizarre nail fetish figures
November 13, 2005 4:28 AM   Subscribe

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. These fantastic Congo nail fetish figures are just one small, wonderful part of the impressive collection of images you can view at the content-rich, gratifyingly obsessive Rand African Art, a site stuffed with nice large photos, lots of lovely, lovely links, and all sorts of intriguing nooks and crannies inviting exploration.
posted by taz (14 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Note that the first color image on the main-linked page features a "unique large nail driven into the head ... allegedly an indication that the figure was used to kill an evil person or spirit". More on the role of the nkisi, by the way, as part of the Met Museum's Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination.
posted by taz at 4:29 AM on November 13, 2005

Great post thanks taz!
[Not to in any way diminish from the digigoodness here but I'm reminded how so often it's the case that for material relating to Africa, E Europe, S America & SE Asia it's more successful searching in American and European repositories - the new digital colonialism. I just wanted to say that] /derail

Love the nail fetish, but scared by the scarification.
posted by peacay at 5:26 AM on November 13, 2005

I'm tempted to post an especially graphic crucifixion scene, but that would be gratuitious and, besides, the underlying religious cosmology is very different.

posted by troutfishing at 6:29 AM on November 13, 2005

Actually, not necessarily such a remote comparison, troutfishing. From the Met page:
In contrast to the Western idea that an artist's finished work is to be regarded as unalterable, here nails, spikes, and other iron elements were later inserted around the figure's chin, into its shoulders, and over much of its torso—additions that inevitably have a powerful effect on a viewer's experience of the work. They were not part of the original design but were added over a period of time. A diviner would use the power figure for different consultations, adding to it and altering it according to the requirement of the case. Since Christian images of various martyred saints, studded with piercing elements, were introduced into the region from Portugal beginning in the sixteenth century, it has been suggested that Kongo culture may have drawn upon its experience of that visual vocabulary.
posted by taz at 6:46 AM on November 13, 2005

Thanks, taz! I have seen several of these nail fetish figures in museums an I have always meant to track down more about them online, they have always piqued my curiosity. So thank you, excellent site!

I was interested to read this:
At most basic, the nkisi represents a container of
empowering materials or “medicines” called bilongo. The magical substances may be blood along
with animal, vegetable, and mineral matter. They are believed to invest the fetish figure with power
and make it possible for the devotee to establish contact with the spirit.

Thus, the genesis of the U.S. concept of "mojo":

Enslaved Kongo and Angolan medicine people brought the concept of bilongo and mooyo together in the Americas as mojo bags. These mojo bags are prepared by a specialist akin to the Banganga (priests/priestess) called a rootworker or conjurer in Hoodoo. The objects within each bag guide the spirits to understand the reason their help is sought. from Conjur Craft: Hoodoo, Rootwork and Conjuring for the 21st Century.
posted by madamjujujive at 6:48 AM on November 13, 2005

Wow. I could spend hours just going through the Met collection page. (Be nice if there were IDs, but I guess he'd need several lifetimes to put full annotations on everything.)
posted by languagehat at 6:54 AM on November 13, 2005

This is great.

posted by Jon-o at 7:21 AM on November 13, 2005

Oh wow, thank you so so so much. I used to work in the African department of a local museum, and this is inducing wonderful flashbacks :)

Definitely bookmarked, for when I can spend a few days on it.
posted by kalimac at 7:26 AM on November 13, 2005

Great post. I had never heard of nail fetish figures. Beautiful and fascinating. Thanks!
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:01 AM on November 13, 2005

These are stunning! Thanks for the great post, taz.
posted by LeeJay at 9:13 AM on November 13, 2005

Best of the web, taz.

I'm lost in the links now. Thanks... I think. heh
posted by reflecked at 11:53 AM on November 13, 2005

Fantastic stuff, taz, thanks!
posted by Frisbee Girl at 12:53 PM on November 13, 2005

For any of you in Chicago, there's one in the Art Institute.
posted by ruby.aftermath at 1:31 PM on November 13, 2005

Thanks for a great link, taz! The guy's apartment is quite decorated.
posted by stroft at 2:39 PM on November 13, 2005

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