Kongo-Yombe Nail Power Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo
- wood and metal
By descent from the above
Ben Heller, New York, acquired from the above in the 1970s
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired from the above on May 9, 1984
Hamline University Art Galleries, Saint Paul, Icons of Perfection: Figurative Sculpture from Africa, December 2, 2005 – February 11, 2006
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, extended loan, March 3, 2006 - March 11, 2013
Sotheby's, New York, The Ben Heller Collection, December 1, 1983, lot 35, and cover (unsold)
Raoul Lehuard, Art Bakongo: les centres du style, Vol. II, Arnouville, 1989, p. 442, fig. 1-1-2
Frank Herreman, Icons of Perfection: Figurative Sculpture from Africa, Saint Paul, 2006, pp. 34-35, cat. 18
Frank Herreman, "Icons of Perfection: Some Thoughts on the Relationship between Aesthetics and Function in African Sculpture", Tribal Art, Vol. X, No. 3, Spring 2006, p. 95, fig. 9
The Kongo people are perhaps most famous for their creation of sacred sculptures, today referred to as power figures, or minkisi (sing. nkisi), in which various pieces of metal are inserted. The guiding idea behind the creation of minkisi was that powerful malevolent or benevolent forces could be manipulated into aiding humans with the solution of problems ranging from ill health, infertility, and other physical issues to misfortune and danger as well as more abstract difficulties such as asocial behavior, legal dispute and crime.
The procedure for composing a nkisi could be very complex and extend over days or weeks. A diviner (the nganga) and the other participants had to obey to a prescribed set of rules which could include dietary restrictions, the performance of chants and rhythms, as well as prayers during the creation period. The nkisi was intended as a container for specific supernatural powers and had to be inviting both on an aesthetic and mystical level. Figurative sculptures were created by professional carvers, some of whom were well known for the quality of their work. The nganga gave iconographic instructions and, upon completion, activated the nkisi through the insertion of animal, vegetable and mineral materials known as “medicines” (milongo or bilongo) that invoked through their substances, names, forms or provenance the powers the nkisi was intended to control.
The necessary animating ingredients were inserted into cavities inside the figures, often behind the eyes, inside the head or abdomen, or they were attached or suspended in pouches, neckbands, belts etc. Abdominal resin or mud packages were often “sealed” with mirror-glass imported from Europe. Once animated, the nkisi was an “alive” powerful being, analogous to a human. Each nkisi had a name and its own personality.
The most violent minkisi were called minkondi (sing. nkondi). They usually show an aggressive pose, either with one arm upraised, holding a spear, or with arms akimbo, as in the present example. Nails, knife blades and other pieces of iron were inserted into the sculpture in order to “arouse” the nkisi to perform the work it was intended to, but they could also represented the physical pain that the target, a human disobeying the social rule enforced by the nkisi, would experience. The more efficient the nkisi was in the solution of problems, the more often it was frequented, resulting over time in an abundance of metal pieces inserted in their body.