Kongo-Yombe Nail Power Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo
- wood, metal, red river hog tusk
Previous provenance presumably:
Ralph Nash, London
Merton D. Simpson, New York, sold to Allan Stone on October 10, 1967
S2 Gallery, Sotheby's New York, Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage, November 18 - December 16, 2011
Sotheby's (adv.), "The Collection of Allan Stone: African, Pre-Columbian and American Indian Art - Volume Two", Tribal Arts Magazine, Vol. XVIII:2, No. 71, Spring 2014, p. 21
No author, "Rendezvous at Sotheby's", Tribal Arts Magazine, Vol. XVIII:2, No. 71, Spring 2014, p. 34
The iconography of the figure reinforces its role as a judge and its power to punish. The posture with right arm raised and left hand resting at the waist is a frequently-used Kongo convention of nkisi nkonde figures, an aggressive pose once holding a spear; this gesture shows the figure’s power to kill by supernatural means. Reinforcing this position in the present figure is the open mouth with stuck-out tongue, possibly a reference to the illness that the figure is capable of causing in a victim, and certainly meant to evoke fear or revulsion. The eyes, now mostly empty, were once filled with potent charge materials such as gunpowder.
The charge-box placed in front of the abdomen bears not the mirror or glass front often seen in Kongo power figures (the materials for which were obtained by trade with Europe), but rather a more archaic form; a thick paste of earth and ash coats the rectangular container, from which emerge four tusks, referencing the four cardinal directions, a frequent motif in Kongo cosmograms. A related example of this type of charge can be seen in a double-headed dog nail power figure in the Menil Collection (see Van Dyke 2008: 176-177), which bears a similar box bracketed by tusks on its back.
The fleshy sculptural quality of the present figure reveals a distinct artistic personality. Rounded cheeks, nose, lips and ears make up the lively face, which the sculptor has defined in stylized but highly naturalistic terms. The elongated torso and arms are carved with smooth, long, patiently curved surfaces, and are now obscured by an array of metal charges. The sculptor observed and exaggerated the anatomical details in the ankles and feet, giving the figure a particularly solid, controlled stance.
The figure shows markings on the front and back where it once bore circular, probably dome-shaped charges. One remains on the right knee and the remains of another can be seen on the left. In this distinctive feature, as well as in the sculptural style of the figure, it relates specifically to two other known examples: one in a private collection published by Felix (2003: 195, cat. 5.17) and another at the University of Leuven, Belgium (see Tollebeek 2011: 85, cat. 12), which appear to have been made in the same sculptural atelier as the present figure.