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Nail Figure (Nkisi Nkondi):


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Kongo peoples live in southwestern Zaire and Angola. In a few traditional Kongo villages a religious specialist, who is also a healer and a legal expert, takes care of the spiritual and physical needs of the villagers with the assistance of a powerful carved figure, called ankisi nkondi. Popularly known as nail figures, these sculptures were used for a wide variety of purposes, including to protect the village, to prove guilt or innocence, to heal the sick, to end disasters, to bring revenge, and to settle legal disputes. However, among most Kongo peoples, these figures are no longer used.
Nkisi refers to the spiritual charm of the figure, and nkondi refers to the carved power figure itself. Nkondi is derived from the verb konda, to hunt. Minkondi (plural for nkondi), like hunters, can capture liars, thieves, adulterers and others who undermine societal structure.

Generally carved in the shape of human beings or, on rarer occasions, dogs, minkondi were sacred objects which contained a powerful spirit, but did not literally represent the spirit. They derived their supernatural power from medicinal substances deposited in cavities cut into either the head or the stomach of the figure. These medicines attracted the spirit which, in turn, acted on behalf of the owner or the client of the figure. Its power could be positive or negative depending on what it was asked to do.

The nkisi nkondi was brought outside from a secluded part of the specialist's home when necessary. Judicial procedures were carried out in public along well-prescribed lines. The people came before an image like this together with the specialist. Together they investigated and tried to understand whatever problem had plagued their village. When a problem was resolved, a disagreement settled, or the cure of an illness decided upon, the principal parties drove a blade, nail, screw, and/or another sharply pointed object into the nkisi nkondi.

Thus, if two parties came before the figure to make peace with each other, the conditions agreed upon were symbolically lodged into the nkondi with a sharp object, similar to the Western tradition of signing a contract.

Or, if one person accused another of stealing property, both would go before the kondi and, while driving in a nail which activated the spirit's power, asked to be destroyed by the image if caught telling a lie.

The type of nail or blade used is determined by the type of agreement or remedy it signifies. Each piece represents an oath, an agreement, or an episode in the village's history.

This nkisi nkondi was made during the late 19th century. It has large, almond-shaped eyes, a broad nose with flaring nostrils, and a full-lipped mouth. The eyes are made of mirror glass. Like a mirror glass, through which one can see, but which also casts back a reflection, the eyes embody the notion of passing back and forth between the spirit and human worlds. The mouth is typically open, ready to speak on behalf of justice, signifying that the figure is alert and has power. This expression attests to the potentially aggressive nature of the spirit and its ability to devour or punish clients who break their vows or lie before the image.

The asexual figure raises its right arm, which probably once held a weapon. It stands with its legs spread and its left hand on its hip. This is a stance of readiness, poised for action. A rectangular container, which holds the figure's powerful medicines is attached to its belly. A mirror, which seals this box, once reflected the faces of those that stood before it, showing that the spirit was keeping watch on their every move and intention.

A variety of sharp objects, but primarily iron nails (some of which are probably later additions), cover this figure. The use of metal was significant as it was considered powerful. A large part of each nail and blade is left visible since together they represent the history of the village that used this figure. Shells, string, and pieces of bone, as well as bundles filled with extra substances, such as the cotton-covered yoke around the figure's neck, also cover the figure. These extra bundles served a similar function as the main medicine bundle on its abdomen. Several of them are wrapped in leaves or cloth which are held together by raffia cords. These tied bundles possibly indicate that they were added during ceremonies to stop diseases or infections, the binding process symbolizing the tying up or hindering of the evil spirit causing the affliction. Nails entwined with string or wicker, however, such as those found on both the left and right-hand side of the face, suggest that they were most probably used during a rite of reconciliation, binding the participants to their promises.

  • Use on the following tours:
    • Visual Elements
      To discuss texture. Compare it to Van Gogh's use of impasto for another example of real texture or to Largillière's portrait or Thorvaldsen's Ganymede and the Eagle for examples of illusionary texture.
    • African Art
    • SculptureCompare this use of wood as a basis for an assemblage to Marisol's Cocktail Party. Compare the materials used as well as the purpose for which each was made.
    • Religion and Art
      To explain how ethics operate in this society.
  • The nail figure derives its power from its medicine bundle. Compare this concept of power with the view of power in other cultures as exemplified in art objects, such as:
    • the Assyrian Winged Genius
    • the Romanesque or Gothic Madonna
    • the Amida Nyorai
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Source: Docent Manual entry for Zaire (Kongo), <i>Nail Figure (Nkisi Nkondi)</i> (19th Century), The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009