Property from the Collection of George and Rosemary Lois, New York
KONGO NAIL POWER FIGURE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Height: 19 ½ in (49.5 cm)
Matthias L. J. Lemaire, Amsterdam, acquired by the 1940s
Alain de Monbrison, Paris
George and Rosemary Lois, New York, acquired from the above in 1972
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 were featured prominently in the 2015 exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 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 testaments to the religious experience of Kongo communities.
Alisa LaGamma notes that "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" (LaGamma, Kongo: Power and Majesty, New York, 2015, p. 37).
"An n'kondi's imposing stature, aggressive 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" (ibid., pp. 37-39).