ArtsConnectEd/ArtsNet Minnesota
What is Art?

Art and Artists
Africa, Zaire
England, Higham Manor, Suffolk
Donald Judd
New Mexico (Mimbres)
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
Thailand (Blue Hmong)
Robert Rauschenberg

Inner Worlds Environment   Identity Designing Spaces and Places
Africa, Zaire
Africa, Zaire, Kongo, Nkisi Nkondi
Africa, Zaire, (Kongo) (KON-go)
Nail Figure (nkisi nkondi) (en-KEE-see en-KAHN-dee), 19th century
wood, vegetable fibers, and metal
H. 15 in.

The answer to the question, "What is art?" is not the same for all cultures. The idea of special objects made as "fine art" is not common to all cultures. In some cultures, what Westerners have traditionally called "art" represent principles that guide every thought and action. Aesthetic traditions are visible in everything such a culture produces, including functional objects.

This figure was created as a functional object that served a civic purpose: to maintain the well-being of a Kongo village. This sculpture served as a type of contract, offering clues about the civil and judicial systems of the village.

About the Art

This sculpture, called an nkisi nkondi (en-KEE-see en-KAHN-dee), was carved by the Kongo people who lived in the region of Zaire in central Africa during the late 19th century.

Popularly known as nail figures, these sculptures were used for protecting the village, curing illnesses, settling disputes, sealing agreements, and destroying enemies. The term nkisi refers to the spirit of the figure. Nkondi refers to the figure itself and comes from the verb konda, "to hunt." (The plural form is minkondi.) Like seasoned hunters, minkondi could capture liars, thieves, and others who undermine society.

Map of Africa
Map of Africa [Click on
image for larger version]

Generally carved in the shape of human beings, minkondi were sacred objects. A nail figure's power came from spirits that were attracted to ritual substances such as herbs, animal bones, fur, and seeds. These substances were placed in a cavity cut into the figure's head or stomach. A religious specialist, who was also a healer and a legal expert, determined the nature of these substances.

Each of the nails driven into the figure represents the taking of an oath, the witnessing of an agreement, or some other occasion when the power of the figure was invoked. On special occasions the nkisi nkondi was brought outside in a public setting where judicial procedures took place. The parties involved came before the figure with the specialist, and together they investigated the problem at hand. When an agreement was to be made, representatives from both parties took an oath in front of the nkisi nkondi. The oath was then sealed by driving a nail or other sharp metal object into the figure to activate its power. This act was similar to the Western tradition of signing a contract.

Minkondi were considered to be executors of a system of justice as well as guardians and friends. They healed or protected the innocent, punished or killed the guilty, and wrought revenge on those who broke their oaths.

Despite its small size, this figure seems very imposing with nails and blades studding its surface. The head is finely carved. The open mouth shows that the figure is ready to speak on behalf of justice.

The figure stands in a pose of challenge and authority, with its left hand resting on its hip, and its right arm raised to hold a weapon (which is missing). A mirror covers the figure's stomach, sealing the rectangular container that holds substances believed to have strong religious powers. The eyes are also made of mirrors. These mirrors reflected the faces of those who stood before the figure, showing that the spirit was keeping watch on their every move.

Vocabulary Terms

aesthetic--The philosophical study that explores questions about "what is art?" or "what is beauty?"

civic--Relating to citizenship or the public affairs of a community.

judicial--Relating to the system of laws and justice in a community.

ritual--A ceremonial act or action.

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