Nkondi (plural minkondi, zinkondi or nkondi with mi-concords, according to dialect) religious objects, frequently called "nail fetishes" because users often hammered nails into them, made by the Kongo people of West Central Africa. Nkondi are a subclass of minkisi that are considered aggressive. The name nkondi derives from the verb -konda, meaning "to hunt" and thus nkondi means "hunter" because they can hunt down and attack wrong-doers or witches, or in some cases, also enemies.
The primary function of a nkondi is be the home of a spirit which can travel out from its base, hunt down and harm other people. Many nkondi were publicly held and were used to affirm oaths, or to protect villages and other locations from witches or evildoers. This is achieved by enlisting spiritual power through getting them to inhabit minkisi like nkondi.
The vocabulary of nkondi has connections with Kongo conceptions of witchcraft which are anchored in the belief that it is possible for humans to enroll spiritual forces to inflict harm on others through cursing them or causing them to have bad luck, accidents or sickness. A frequently used expression for hammering in the nails into a nkondi is "koma nloka" (to attach or hammer in a curse) derives from two roots, both ancient in Bantu linguistic history, *-kom- which includes hammering in its semantic field, and *-dog- which involves witchcraft and cursing. "Kindoki" a term derived from the same root is widely associated with witchcraft, or effecting curses against others, but in fact refers to any action intended to enlist spirits to harm others. If exercised privately for selfish ends, the use of this power is condemned as witchcraft, but if the power is used publicly by political leaders, or as a protective measure by innocent people, however, it is not considered witchcraft.
Because they are aggressive, many nkondi with human figures are carved with their hands raised, sometimes bearing weapons. The earliest representation of an nkisi in this pose can be seen in the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Kongo, designed around 1512 and illustrated between 1528 and 1541, where a broken "idol" is shown with this gesture at the base of the shield. Nailed minkisi are not described in the literature left by missionaries or others in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and it is possible that nailing is an innovation of a later period.
Wyatt MacGaffey, citing the work of the late seventeenth century Capuchin missionary Luca da Caltanisetta, noted that in his day, nganga sometimes banged minkisi together, perhaps a method of activating them, and nails, which MacGaffey contends were first being made at the time eventually replaced the metaphor. Other scholars believe that the Portuguese missionaries brought images of Christ nailed to the cross and the martyr Saint Sebastian to the peoples of Central Africa, and these experts believe that this iconography maybe have influenced nkisi tradition. MacGaffey, for his part, speaks against this interpretation, arguing that the concept of nailing is tied up with too many other concepts to be a simple misunderstanding of missionary teaching.
Nkondi with nails were made at least as early as 1864, when the British Commodore A. P. Eardley Wilmont acquired one while suppressing Solongo (Soyo) piracy at the mouth of the Congo River, a piece that was the subject of a contemporary painting and is presently in the Royal Geographical Institute in London. Another early description and illustration of a nailed nkondi (named Mabiala mu ndemba, and described as a "thief-finder") is found in the notes of the German expedition to Loango of 1873-76, so by that time the specific practice of nailing was well established.
Nkondi, like other minkisi, are constructed by religious specialists, called nganga (plural nganga, also zinganga and banganga according to dialect). The nganga gathers materials, called nlongo (plural bilongo, milongo, or concord with mi-), which when assembled, will become the home of a spirit. Often these materials include a carved human figure into which the other bilongo are placed. The nganga then either becomes possessed with the spirit or places the finished nkondi in a graveyard or other place where spirits frequent. Once it is charged, the nkondi can then be handed over to the client. According to Kongo testimony of the early twentieth century, people drive nails into the figures as part of a petition for help, healing, or witness-particularly of contracts and pledges. The purpose of the nailing is to "awaken" and sometimes to "enrage" the nkisi to the task in hand.
Nkondi figures could be made in many forms, including pots or other containers, which were described and sometimes illustrated in early twentieth century Kikongo texts. but those that used human images (kiteke) were most often nailed, and thus attracted collectors' attention and thus are better known today. Human figures ranged in size from small to life-size, and contained bilongo (singular longo often translated as "medicine"), usually hidden by resin-fixed mirrors. Nkondi in the form of wooden figures were often carved with open cavities in their bodies for these substances. The most common place for storage was the belly, though such packs are also frequently placed on the head or in pouches surrounding the neck.
In most nkondi figures the eyes and medicine pack covers were reflective glass or mirrors, used for divination. The reflective surface enabled the nkisi to see in the Other World in order to spy out its prey. Some nkondi figures were adorned with feathers. This goes along with the concept of the figures as being "of the above," and associates them with birds of prey.
The creation and use of nkondi figures was also a very important aspect to their success. Banganga often composed the nkondi figures at the edge of the village. The village was thought of as being similar to the human body. The idea that the edge and entrances needed to be protected from evil spirits occurred in both the human body and the village. When composing the minkisi the nganga is often isolated in a hidden camp, away from the rest of the village. After the nkisi was built and the nganga had learned its proper use and the corresponding songs, he returned to the village covered in paint and behaving in a strange manner.
The unusual behavior was to illustrate the ngangas return to the land of the living. Prior to using the nkondi, the nganga recited specific invocations to awaken the nkondi and activate its powers. During their performances, banganga often painted themselves. White circles around the eyes allowed them to see beyond the physical world and see the hidden sources of evil and illness. White stripes were painted on the participants. Often the nganga was dressed similar to his nkondi. Banganga generally dressed in outfits that were vastly different than normal people. They wore ornate jewelry and often incorporated knots in their clothing. The knots were associated with a way of closing up or sealing of spiritual forces.
Nkondi in the African Diaspora
Scholars are sure that African and particularly Kongo concepts and religious values crossed the Atlantic with their holders during the period of the Atlantic Slave trade. Neo-African religions in the Americas, particularly Palo Monte, incorporated such ideas, and they can also be found in Vodun, Santeria and other religious traditions. Robert Farris Thompson, an American art historian has been particularly diligent, and influential in identifying Kongo influences in the African descended population of the Americas. At present no early Diasporic example of a nailed nkondi has been found in the Americas, the concept of an aggressive nkisi is fairly widespread.
Nkondi in the Arts outside Africa
European collectors were immediately interested in nkondi, especially the nailed ones, when they were reported back in the publications of the German Loango Expedition, which brought a good number of them back to Europe. Robert Visser, a German trader and diplomat also collected a great many examples for German museums, particularly in Berlin and Stuttgart. Many were purchased, others stolen to removed by colonial authorities, and often found their way to museums, but many also remain in private hands. Given the interest in this type of art, there a many fakes or locally produced imitations of the style for the tourist art trade.
More recently, artists have worked with the concept and visual imagery of nkondi to produce new works inspired by nkondi. African American artist Renee Stout's "Fetish no. 2" first exhibited in 1988 is perhaps the most famous of these, a life sized statue cast from Stout's own body with the glass eye features and a few nails reminiscent of nkondi. Stout's work was the subject of a major exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of African Art, featuring her various nkisi pieces with commentary by anthropologist Wyatt MacGaffey.
In her mixed media composition "Intertexuality Vol. 1" African American artist Stephanie Dinkins disposed of the human figure of the nkondi but included the nails and the replaced the mirror with a video screen showing a 3 minute presentation, in an exhibition entitled "Voodoo Show: Kongo Criollo" in 1997.
In her performance piece Destierro (Displacement) (first performed in Cuba and the USA, 1998–99) Cuban artist Tania Bruguera dressed in a special suit made to resemble a nailed nkondi, and then, after remaining still for some hours, went around looking for those who had broken promises. She performed this piece also at the exhibit "Transfigured Worlds" (28 January-11 April 2010) at the Neuberger Museum of Art (New York).
African American artist Kara Walker featured two nkondi figures in her silhouette piece "Endless Conundrum, an African Anonymous Adventure" in 2001, and frequently re-exhibited. In her self-curated show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006, Walker also used an nkisi, probably nkondi as a central motif for the show "Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge."
African American artist Dread Scott (Scott Tyler) exhibited an African featured toy doll as a nkondi, with bullets serving as nails, at the Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art (Newark, NJ) in 2006-2007 in the three person show "But I Was Cool".
In African American artist Karen Seneferu's multi-media sculptures, "Techno-Kisi I" and "Techno-Kisi II" both based on a nkondi with rounded nails but she included elements of modern communications technology such as slide shows or iPods to replace the traditionally mirrored eyes and belly. Her work was originally commissioned by the California African American Museum and shown also at the Skirball Cultural Center in 2010.
South African Artist Michael MacGarry exhibited “ivory sculptures referring to Nkondi sculptures as well as the catastrophic aftermath of war," in the exhibition, "Contested Terrain" at the Tate Gallery, London, in August, 2011.
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- Bakongo Nkondi Nail Fetish This site and its related links has many pictures and bibliography.
- En/Gendered Power: A nkisi from the Rockefeller Collection
- Brooklyn Museum: Standing Nkisi Figure
- Nkisi at the Art Institute of Chicago
- Nkondi at the Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles.
- Nkondi and the Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Nkondi at the Pitt-Rivers Museum Also contains useful text.
- Vansina, Paths in the Rainforest, p. 299.
- Simon Bockie, Death and the Invisible Powers: The World of Kongo Belief'(Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1993), pp. 40-66.'
- Cécile Fromont, "Under the Sign of the Cross in the Kingdom of Kongo: Shaping Images and Molding Faith in Early Modern Central Africa," PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2008, p.90-91.
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- Birmingham Museum of Art (2010). Birmingham Museum of Art:Guide to the Collection. London, UK: GILES. pp. 72–73. ISBN 978-1-904832-77-5. Retrieved 2011-07-18.
- Zdenka Volavka, "The Nkisi of Lower Zaire,"African Arts 5 (1972): 52-89.
- MacGaffey, Kongo Political Culture p. 99.
- Wyatt MacGaffey, "Commodore Wilmont Encounters Kongo Art 1865,," African Arts (Summer, 2010): 52-54.
- Beatrix Heintze, ed. Eduard Peuchël-Loesche, Tagbücher von der Loango Küste (Zentral-Afrika) (24.2.1875-5.5.1876)(Frankfurt-am-Main, 2011) entry of 1 April 1875, illustrated in Abb 8.
- MacGaffey, Kongo Political Culture, pp. 100-101.
- MacGaffey, Wyatt (0993). Astonishment & Power, The Eyes of Understanding: Kongo Minkisi. National Museum of African Art.
- Robert Farris Thompson, The Flash of the Spirit
- Robert Farris Thompson and Robert Cornet, Four Moments of the Sun
- Wyatt MacGaffey and M. Harris, eds, Astonishment and Power, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993).
- Stephanie Dinkins http://mysbfiles.stonybrook.edu/~sdinkins/Stephanie%20Dinkins/IntertextV1.html
- Neuberger Museum of Art Transformed Worlds
- "Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love" Walker Art Center, Gallery Guide, http://media.walkerart.org/pdf/KWgallery_guide.pdf
- Review by Cindi di Marzo, http://www.studio-international.co.uk/reports/kara_walker.asp
- Interview with Karen Senefuru, 2010 http://blog.sfmoma.org/2010/02/techno-kisi-interview-with-artist-karen-seneferu/
- Tate Description, "Contested Terrain" http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/contestedterrains/room2.shtm