52
52

PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF STUART AND GRACE MILLAR, NEW YORK

Kongo-Yombe Nail Power Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo

 
Estimate
250,000350,000
LOT SOLD. 310,000 USD
JUMP TO LOT
52

PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF STUART AND GRACE MILLAR, NEW YORK

Kongo-Yombe Nail Power Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo

 
Estimate
250,000350,000
LOT SOLD. 310,000 USD
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian Art

|
New York

Kongo-Yombe Nail Power Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo

 
nkisi n'kondi

inscribed on the reverse in black ink:
35617
Majombe
R. Visser


Height: 29 in (73.6 cm)
Read Condition Report Read Condition Report

Provenance

Collected in situ by Robert Visser before 1905
Linden Museum, Stuttgart, inv. no. "35617", acquired from the above
Stuart and Grace Millar, New York, acquired in Paris circa 1950s-1960s
Thence by descent

Catalogue Note

Prologue

Kongo sacred sculptures called minkisi (sing. nkisi) are among the most powerful and refined of all Sub-Saharan art forms, and rank among the iconic genres of African art.  The most imposing category of minkisi are those which bear an accumulation of inserted nails and metal objects, remnants of their ritual use. In the west these have been called fétiches à clous or nail power figures, and most recently were featured prominently in the ground-breaking exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (LaGamma 2015).  The result of a collaborative procedure between a sculptor, a ritual specialist, and the people they served, these sculptures have a special resonance not only as sensitively-modeled representations of the human form, but also as physical testimony to the religious experience of Kongo communities.

The present figure, which remained virtually unseen for decades in the private New York collection of Stuart and Grace Millar, is a significant rediscovery for the corpus of Kongo nail power statuary.  Detailed documentation is a rare circumstance in the history of African art; particularly notable therefore is the fact that an inscription on the back of this figure confirms that it was collected by Robert Visser, who left Africa in 1904 and so must have acquired it before that date.

Cultural context

As LaGamma (2015: 37) notes: "The most influential class of Kongo minkisi often took the form of formidable wood figures bristling with added hardware.[...] Along the coast, from northern Angola to southern Gabon, they were known as mbau, or 'ready to fight', while in the interior as far as Kinshasa they were called n'kondi (pl. minkondi), or 'hunter'.  Unlike more specialized minkisi, minkondi were credited with assisting regional chiefs in maintaining public order.  Rare pre-eighteenth-century descriptions of the invocation of an n'kondi refer to the nganga [ritual specialist] striking two anvils together and inserting wood pegs into the sculpture.  In more recent times this call to action has taken the form of hammering in a nail, koma nloko.  Each inserted element, which might take the form of blades, nails, or screws, subsequently served as a memorandum of sorts relating to a specific case - the signing of particular vows, or the sealing of covenants.  Disputing individuals, whether divorcing spouses or warring factions of neighboring communities, finalized a binding agreement by coming together before an nganga and inserting hardware into an n'kondi.  A fee was paid for the addition of each element."

She continues (loc. cit.): "An n'kondi's imposing stature, aggresive stance, and omniscient gaze as well as its associations with deadly afflictions and natural forces such as thunderstorms, fire, and birds of prey deterred antisocial behavior.  If its ability to prevent transgressions failed, an n'kondi was carried to a crime site and deployed in pursuit of the culprit.  These regulatory instruments were credited with controlling life-threatening bodily ailments, violence, and even death.  Accordingly, minkondi could punish violators with the full force of those same afflictions."

Robert Visser

Robert Visser was born on December 2, 1860 as Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Robert Visser in Düsseldorf, Germany.  He was the fifth child of the ship captain Joseph Heinrich Wilhelm Visser and his wife Katharina Gertrude, née Dickes. After joining the Rotterdam-based trading company Nieuwe Afrikaansche Handels-Vernootschap, Visser settled permanently in the Loango region, situated in today's Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and the Angolan enclave Cabinda, where he would remain for the next 22 years (Hein in Deimel and Seige 2012: 35). Working as director of several coffee and caocao plantations, Visser became fascinated with local traditional culture which at the time was still alive but already quickly eroding as a result of Western influence. Visser married the daughter of a local chief, with whom he had a son, Robert Anton Visser (id: 36). After the death of his wife, Visser moved back to Germany in 1904 where he remarried and worked as author, lecturer and eventually as director of the local tourism club in Düsseldorf until his death in 1927 (loc. cit.).

During his time in Loango, Robert Visser collected more than 1,000 objects which he donated in several installments to the Völkerkundemuseum Berlin, the Museum für Völkerkunde Leipzig, and the Linden-Museum Stuttgart.

African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian Art

|
New York