|Nkisi Figures of the Lower Congo
by Zdenka Volavkova
|FIG 1 STANDING FIGURE WITH NAILS (DETAIL). WOOD, PAINT, MIXED MEDIA. KONGO. WHOLE FIGURE
25 1/2" - MUSEE DE L'HOMME, PARIS
When missionaries and travelers of the past encountered fetishes in the numerous villages and towns
of the lower Congo, their judgments of these specific African works of art were unanimous. These
"devil images" (Dapper, 1676; Merolla, 1683) "rudely carved in wood and covered with dirty rags" (J.
K. Tuckey, 1816) were "ferocious in appearance" (H. M. Stanley, 1895). Lieutenant]. K. Tuckey
compared them with "scarecrows" and the Catholic and Baptist missionaries at the end of the 19th
century considered them "indecent" (J. H. Weeks, W. H. Bentley) or "frankly obscene" (A. J. Wauters).
In modern times, after exposure to Dada and Surrealist objects, the Western response to the African
fetish is no longer so negative. Their artistic form, however, still poses many problems and
discussions.1 Let me mention at least the evaluations of fetishes by two major representatives of the
study of African art. Frans Olbrechts, in his book on the art of the Congo, stated that he saw a strong
distinction between Kongo ancestor figures and fetish figures, the latter never revealing a "neat and
technically perfect aspect".2 William Fagg, on the other hand, speaking on the African fetish in
general in the introduction to the Webster Plass Collection, concluded that the carver, in most cases,
had consciously tried to make the fetishes beautiful and aesthetically satisfying.3
Fetish figures are generally divided according to the character of their effect into two principal groups:
the malevolent and the benevolent. The classification of the Kongo Minkisi is often more detailed in
view of their great variety. Father Van Wing,4 for instance, found among the Mpangu more than one
hundred and fifty kinds of Minkisi (fetishes), the statuettes of which he divided into Biteke and Kkomdi.
According to him, Biteke probably denote large figures and Xbmdi smaller ones, or a special kind
fetish with a specific function. Then several groups of fetishes to their functions: healing fetishes,
fetishes of the bush or of waters, and detective fetishes. A Baptist missionary, J. H. Weeks,5 however,
who spent almost thirty years with the Kongo, first in the area of Sao Salvador and then with the
eastern Kongo, dealt with the groups of fetishes only in terms of their denominations, disregarding the
Beginning with Dapper in 1676 and the record of the Capuchin missionary Merolla, 1683, and ending
with missionary writings of the late 19th and early 20th century, there were presented as many
descriptions and classifications of fetishes of the Lower Congo as there were authors. None of the
classifications were free from ambiguities and vagueness; there was overlapping from one group to
another of types of fetishes and their functions.
In the late twenties and early thirties J. Maes pursued, in his five studies, the systematic classification
of fetishes of the Lower Congo. He divided the fetish figures into four groups: the healing fetishes,
called Na Moganga;6 the malevolent Npezo figures, causing someone's sickness;7 Mbula figures,
which protect chiefs against the witch power of the ndoki;8 and finally the most malevolent Konde, the
nail fetishes, which inflict serious illness upon persons who are believed to be the cause of trouble.9
Macs' classification is based upon the functions of the objects. He attempted to prove, however, that
each group corresponds to one or more figural types, with characteristic artistic features.
Na Moganga are, according to the above classification, sitting figures with the arm supporting the
head (Solongo, Kongo, Yumbe) or standing figures with truncated arms (Sundi, Bwenda). They are
richly decorated with various substances and high hair-styles and are always very carefully sculpted,
with peaceful and mild expressions. Maes states that the sculptor wanted to incorporate in his statue
the benevolent attributes endowing it with the general aspect of a restful, reasoning, and powerful
man who disseminates joy and good fortune.10
On the other hand, the Konde and Npezo figures possess, besides their specific types of figure, a
threatening appearance which, in the case of Npezo fetishes, is weakened by the laughing and ironic
expression of the face. Finally, according to this view, the sculptors who tried to give to the Konde
figures especially, a terrible and furious appearance,11 did not aim for awfulness of aspect when
carving an Mbula fetish. The main attribute of the latter is a bunch of small tubes which are filled with
various substances, the most common of which is gunpowder for killing the ndoki.12
This classification of the Minkisi into Na Moganga, Npezo, Mbula, and Konde groups poses several art
historical problems. When cataloguing any collection of sculpture of the Lower Congo one discovers
very early that attributes and artistic features do not give unequivocal evidence for assigning a figure
to any one of the groups. For instance, apiece from the Museum of Primitive Art, New York (Fig. 2)
does not show any "attacking" gesture and the expression of the face is peaceful and almost dreamy,
the figure having closed eyes. All these elements would qualify the figure as a healing fetish, Na
Moganga. One finds, however, in the assemblage of appended attributes, a small dagger and driven
nails, which are linked with the Konde group, as well as two bunches of hanging tubes which belong to
the equipment of the Mbula fetishes. Probably because of these attributes, the figure is described in
the Museum catalogue as a malevolent fetish rather than a benevolent one as might be expected
from its artistic features.
An Nkisi figure in the Neues Museum at St. Gallen, Switzerland (Fig. 3),13 like a similar piece in the
Museum of Primitive Art, New York (Fig. 4), exhibits many of the significant features of the Npezo
fetishes. The bodies of both sculptures are leaning forward, which pose was explained by J. Maes as
a readiness to attack. The expression is almost calm. Finally, the headdress in both cases
corresponded to the Npezo types as defined by J. Maes.14 The feather crown of the St. Gallen figure
is not preserved, yet the traces in the resin helmet prove its former existence. However, the St. Gallen
sculpture, which was purchased before 1915 at Ganda-Sundi, came to the Museum described as a
fetish against foot ailments; that is as a healing Nkisi.
The last example, also a figure from the Neues Museum (Fig. 7), has all the attributes and features of
an Mbula fetish which should kill the ndoki to protect the chief. However, the original description, given
to the Museum in 1915 by the person who purchased the statue at Handa-Sundi, indicates that it is a
Zasi Solo fetish used against pulmonary illnesses.
The same problem occurs when examining written records, many of which are, in this regard, neither
precise nor rich enough. There are, however, several important pieces of information which enable
one to view in history the relationships of the function to type and artistic form.
The English trader, Andrew Battell of Leigh, who stayed in Loango probably from 1607 to 1610 and
who made a trip to Mayombe, described a large image called a Mararnba fetish which he had seen in
Mani Mayombe.15 The figure detected murderers, thieves, and witches by killing them and was used
also in initiation rituals. The chief took it with him every time he travelled and also made offerings to it.
Thus, the figure was supposed to perform at least three different kinds of activity: besides the political
function associated with the chief, it was to protect the initiated, and kill malefactors and suspected
John H. Weeks, who stayed with the Kongo for thirty years beginning in 1882, gave very detailed data
about the function of Minkisi. He described the activity of the "lion doctor" (nganga nkosi) who was
invited at times by men who had been robbed, to curse the unknown thief with pulmonary illness. If
any person then got a lung disease and all remedies failed, the person was believed to be a thief and
the "lion doctor" was called. He used his fetish first for the action called loca e nkisi and then for the
one called lembola e nkisi 16 Loka means in Kikongo "to kill or harm somebody" or "the destructive
force" while lem-bula means "to take off, to wipe out, or to heal".17 One single Nkisi was thus
employed (as in the case of Battell's Maramba) for two contradictory actions: accusing and healing.
The image called Ebunze Nkisi both gave and cured apoplexy and was used by thieves as a
protection in a robbery.18 The image utilized by the Nganga Mbambi inflicted and cured deep-seated
ulcers.19 The very powerful Nzaji Nkisi could both protect and kill by lightning and give and heal a skin
disease; it was finally employed to subdue slaves and bind them to their masters.20
These few examples from the records agree with the data obtained in the preceding considerations
on Nkisi sculptures. In addition, they give evidence that polyvalency is inherent to the Minkisi and did
not develop or degenerate in the course of time.
Some changes probably occurred in history, but only in relation to application of the fetishes. Dapper
in the 18th century noted the female form of the Nkisi called Nkosi, the lion, which he mentioned when
dealing with Loango.21. In the 1930's Van Wing gave a detailed description of both forms of Nkosi,
the female one being a sack and the male one an anthropomorphic figure.22 In Dapper's
presentation the Nkosi are utilized as protection against lightning and sickness. The Mpangu in the
area of Van Wing's mission at Kesantu, on the other hand, used Nkosi to detect and kill thieves and
ndoki, and in the Kimpasi initiation society against disobedient members. It is believed that the Nkosi,
having detected the enemy, kills him by crushing him so that all blood gradually leaves his body. The
same cruel vision is reflected also in the incantation song of the male Nkosi noted by Van Wing.23
Words like Kimenga kyaku dia (drink his blood), Zeka nsingu (twist his neck), or Uonda (kill!) directly
contrast with the peaceful male figure which was published by Van Wing24 and which reveals neither
in its medium nor in its composition and sculptural treatment any trace of a menacing expression.
The most terrible appearance is attributed to the nail figures. In anthropological literature they are
generally known as Konde or Nkonde. Laman's Dictionary of 1936 notes Khonde which designates in
the Yombe dialect an Nkisi, and Nkondi which means a hunter who leaves to hunt in secret, and an
Nkisi provoking a sickness in the chest, an Nkisi detecting a thief, or finally, a large statue in wood.25
The last meaning corresponds to Van Wing's interpretation of Nkondi as being among the Mpangu,
either a large or small Nkisi figure.26 On the other hand, J. H. Weeks, who lived in Sao Salvador and
with the Zombo and other Eastern Bakongo, mentioned the nail figures called Mbanzangola which
belonged only to the magician and never to a private person.27 According to most records, the nail
sculpture operates in a destructive way. Sometimes, however it is mentioned as a healing fetish.28 A.
Maesen designates its role as ambivalent.29 The meaning of knife-stabs or of nails driven into the
vital parts also seems to be somewhat ambiguous; there is an interpretation viewing them as offerings
for benefits received. A nail may also be driven into the image by a sick person to pass on his
complaint to an enemy, who, he thinks, sent it to him.30 The destructive and horrible impression of
Nkondi figures results from their specific paraphernalia such as nails and other attributes, and from
their partial polychromy, rather than from the carved statuettes themselves. Even the "menacing"
gesture is often replaced by the gesture of the medicinal figures. Such is the case, for instance, of the
large, almost life-size sculpture from the Linden-Museum, Stuttgart (Fig. 6), and of other nail figures
published by Jiirgen Zwernemann.31 Sometimes, the gesture of the figure becomes irrelevant, being
hidden by the paraphernalia.
Nails and knife stabs have a great deal to do with the total expression of Nkondi figures. However,
they doubtless became components of the statuettes only when the carver's influence was ended.
The art historians of the period of Romanticism would probably have demanded their removal,
considering them to be reminders of ritual and not the intention of the artist. Today's aesthetic
appreciation includes them in the artistic components of the figure. As such, they appear strange
within the context of the traditional media of African art. Unlike the decorative round-headed nails
which occur in Songye sculpture and sometimes appear in the Lower Congo, the nails and knife
marks on the Nkondi figures are naturalistic. Used on the anthropomorphic shape of the figures, they
operate as wounding instruments. This effect probably accounts for the theory that they are
influenced by the Christian idea of the nail symbolizing Christ's suffering.
Without claiming the latter hypothesis to be a final solution, it can be supported with some arguments.
The earliest record on nail figures of the Lower Congo that I have been able to find, that of Tuckey, is
dated 1816.32 Dapper, who in the 17th century compiled in his descriptions of Loango, Kongo and
Angola much detailed data on African objects and rituals, mentioned the use of iron nails and
fishhooks only in connection with a pot filled with earth and hung with rags.33 The 16th and 17th
centuries, the period before and after the Jaga invasion, is the period of a cultural syncretism
expanding mainly from Sao Salvador, Soyo, and the port of Cabinda. Through trade and missions
many non-African objects came into the country. "All the missionaries carried a chest along with them
containing all things necessary for the holy sacrifice," stated the Capuchin Denis de Carli.34 Pigafetta
spoke of "many divers images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother and of other Saints" brought to the
Kongo by the Portuguese.35 The assimilation of these objects by the Kongo was doubtless not as
easy and peaceful as Pigafetta thought. The king, he said, gathered his people together "and instead
of their idols which before they had in reverence, he gave them crucifixes and images of saints..." and
"they never more remembered their former belief in false and lying idols."36 Dapper, in 1676, viewed
the situation more realistically stating that the people in the Kongo, had "two arrows in their bows,"
Catholic and Pagan ones, mixing the objects of both rituals.37 This situation still existed in some
areas in the 19th century. Captain Tuckey, in 1816, saw at Noki, in the region of the cataracts, that
"the crucifixes left by the missionaries were strangely mixed with the native fetishes and the people
seemed by no means improved by this melange of Christian and Pagan idolatry."38 "Santu" crosses
and crucifixes, utilized as amulets bringing good fortune in hunting,39 as tokens of prestige in the
investiture and in the procedures of justice 40 and probably for other purposes as well, prove that the
period of syncretism in art was no short episode. Tata Nsiesie observed, in the early 20th century, a
special predilection for small copper images of the Immaculate, and for the wooden statuette of St.
Anthony.41 The latter was worn by pregnant Kongo women on the breast in order to have either a
son or a daughter, according to the kind of offering given it. In the early 1880's J. H. Weeks received
such a sculpture from a young man in whose family it had been for several generations where it was
regarded as a fetish.42
The syncretism consisted both of the common ritual use of imported and traditional works of art and of
the initial production of objects varying from the imported type and form. In addition, the vision of the
people was necessarily affected by the strange formal and symbolic vocabulary, of which particular
elements were very probably incorporated in their art. To return to the wounding nails and stabs
driven into the bodies of the sculpture, it is pertinent to mention a short story recorded by Merolla. At
the mission at Soyo "on the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, I had a mind to preach a
sermon against these practices [fetishism, initiation, etc.] and the better to move the people, I had
before placed the image, in relief, of this blessed saint, covered on the altar, with a dagger stuck
through her breast from which the blood flowed; this done, I began to discourse against those women
that observed the hellish delusions before mentioned, proving that they thereby not only offended
their loving Saviour, but likewise did great injury to his immaculate mother. At the same instant I drew
aside the curtain and discovered the image, which the people perceiving so wounded and bloody,
began immediately to relent, and broke out into the extremest grief."43
This story may serve as an example of new experiences to which the people were exposed in the time
when the missions were at their peak. Thus, in the complex syncretic process the symbols of Christ's
suffering and the Virgin's sorrow might have been amalgamated by the African system of signs and
become instruments inflicting an enemy with serious disease or death. Finally, a record noted by
Dapper may contribute to the approximate dating of this change. An Nkisi called Kikokoo, which
appears also in other records, was a man's image of black wood standing in the village of Kinga on
the coast of Loango. It kept the sea calm and brought much trade and many fish to Loango. Stolen
one night by two young men from a Portuguese boat, it was damaged. Therefore the young men
drove nails into its head and arm in order to attach them again to the body, and, in the night, returned
the statuette to the village. A story was immediately diffused by the nganga saying that Kikokoo had
been to Portugal and brought back with him a boat full of merchandise. Shortly after this, a
Portuguese boat was wrecked on the Loango coast. The people explained it as the statuette's
revenge for the nails driven in its head while in Portugal.44 Dapper's story records what is doubtless
an oral African legend. In an indirect way it reveals that the driving in of nails and stab marks was not
at that time a current ritual, and that the practice may have started as a novelty sometime about or
after the mid-17th century.
Nails and knives driven into the sculpture are crucial for its aesthetic appearance. They are directly
linked with the total function of the fetish, although the latter is not precisely definable. They
represent, however, a specific element which was added to the statuettes after the artist's work was
finished and was not therefore an intentional artistic medium. In addition, this element is not, most
probably, an autochthonous one, but is an assimilated attribute. Previous observations of some
fetishes, on the one hand, and of several written records, on the other, resulted in the following
conclusions: 1. the function of Minkisi was and is ambiguous; 2. an Nkisi figure operates in most cases
in an antithetical way —both as a benefactor and malefactor; 3. the morphological features and the
types of the fetishes are not in accordance with their functions.
When viewed as works of art, many Nkisi figures show a contrast in the making of the head or face
and that of the body.45 The rendering of the head is fine and the forms are sensitively moulded. The
body, arms and legs, on the other hand, are sometimes hardly articulated and are roughly carved in
large cuts. The head and body are not balanced in the rendering or the proportions. Sometimes the
discrepancy between the carefully carved head and the coarsely carved body cannot be seen, the
body being hidden partly or completely by the paraphernalia. There are also, however, many cases in
which the carving and shaping of the body is as delicate as that of the head, although it is still
covered by the paraphernalia.
The fundamental medium of the Nkisi figures is wood. The figure used as a fetish, however, is an
assemblage of heterogeneous materials and objects all of which, with the carved wooden part, make
one single complex appreciated as a work of art. In the light of existing records it is possible to trace
each step of the process by which this complex originates. When a person feels the need to own a
fetish, he buys a statuette either from a carver or in the market.46 This statuette is not yet an Nkisi,
but only the basis for one; the person has bought a piece of sculpture, not an Nkisi. This image or
sculpture is called in the Eastern Kongo teke or teki.47 An Nkisi figure comes into existence only after
a ceremony in which the force or "respect" (nkinda) is put into the image and the paraphernalia added
to it. This second part of the work on the sculpture is performed by the nganga, the diviner. He places
the magic substance not only in a receptacle in the body, but often in the head also. He shapes the
headdress, sometimes paints the figure's face, and adds various materials and small objects to the
statuette, sometimes covering most of its parts.
Thus, the statuette leaves the carver's hands in an unfinished stage. The Uganda's, intervention is a
ritual one, yet it influences fundamentally the morphology of the figure and its artistic effect. The
carver finishes the face, for instance, giving to it a specific volume and endowing its features with
specific shapes and spatial depth. If he does not actually carve the headdress itself in wood, he will
prepare a kind of peg or substructure with engraved surface so that the moulded headdress will hold
well. The headdress then added by the nganga becomes an artistic part of the figure, interacting with
the carved face through its volumes, shapes and textures.
This special division of labor between the carver and the nganga may be eliminated only in the case
of personal union. This occurred, for instance, with Mipako, both wood-carver and nganga among the
Sise in the Teke area, who was the informant of Robert Hottot.48
Evaluation by society of the carver's work, on the one hand, and the nganga's work on a single
feature, on the other, is remarkably different. J. H. Weeks 49 noted that a wooden image could be
bought for a yard or two of common calico. Its change into a strong fetish, however, could cost the
buyer forty or fifty yards or even the price of a slave.
The nganga's participation is apparently much more highly valued than is the wood carver's work.
Older records sometimes mention the nganga as being the author of the whole image,50 which might
suggest that this difference in the appreciation is a traditional phenomenon. The question now is
whether the price difference shows merely the high appreciation of the magical ritual or whether it
expresses also something about the artistic value. The analogy exists in late medieval European wood
carving. The carver was paid much less than the painter who painted the sculpture.51 Both were
considered artists in the medieval sense, but the work of the first one did not result in a final product.
In the case of the Nkisi figure, only the carver is the artist. The discrepancy in the price, however, may
also be due to the fact that his work is materially unfinished.
The materials and objects added by the nganga to the figures are not only heterogeneous, but are
curious, unusual and enigmatic. The unexpected compositions often fascinated European travellers of
the past. "There is nothing so vile in nature, that does not serve for a negro's fetish" noted the
naturalists of Tuckey's expedition in their diary.52 These combinations of, for instance, the European
iron padlock, a bird's bill, the head of a snake, with nuts, pebbles, a hunting net and bead necklaces
53 were, there is no doubt, intended to strongly affect the purchasers. The absurdity of such
compositions of objects and substances taken from their natural contexts and put into new, artificial
ones served as an important means of expression. The unforeseen and surprising also played their
parts. Numerous are the records stating that the people preferred to have an nganga who came from
a village distant from their own. For medicinal purposes they seldom, if ever, engaged the nganga
from their own village. As Weeks said, "they know too much about him to waste their money on him.
They see him repairing his charms and fetishes from the depredations of rats, cockroaches and white
What the nganga adds to the figure is considered functional, but to a large extent, it operates
psychologically. The nganga assigns the fetish a specific function sometimes by means of the
paraphernalia, but generally by means of the name given to the figure in the course of its ritual
The carver also tried at times to comply with the future paraphernalia of the statuette. For instance,
the piece from the Tervuren Museum found in the neighborhood of Boma (Fig. 5) reveals the artist's
intention to prepare an Nkisi figure having a container for magical ingredients in its stomach and one
on the right shoulder, similar to a Kongo statuette at the Musee de l'Homme (Fig. 9). The Tervuren
figure, which was not finished by the nganga, shows well how the wood carver had prepared the
surface of the statuette for the resin over modellation and for the headdress. There are, however,
numerous instances proving that the artist's intention was not pursued or was misunderstood by the
nganga. Sometimes the nganga disregarded the fact that the body should be partly covered, and at
other times he neglected the peg for the headdress. He left the statuette both materially unfinished
and artistically disharmonious. Finally, other instances show that the nganga sometimes changed
even the carved parts, covering, for example, the carved hairstyle by the resin hat which he probably
considered important for a particular function. Such is the case, for instance, of the figure from the
Tervuren Museum collected at Boma.
Each nganga might have had some personal convention in the use of his attributes, yet
improvisation also played a part. The attributes of an Nkisi figure were also sometimes
subsequently changed. Most Minkisi, in other words, have been employed many times.
Sometimes the nganga simply followed a different mode of procedure to use the same fetish for a
purpose other than its previous one. At other times, however, he even adapted the fetish for
another operation of the same cult. J. H. Weeks mentioned that there may have been
simultaneously in use 1000 charms and fetishes of a particular name, a situation offering
freedom for much improvisation, considering that there were no fixed iconographical rules.
Finally, an Nkisi figure which is found weak or ineffective may be returned to the nganga. The records
suggest that the nganga, after a little adaptation, sometimes sold them to another client. The
previous considerations might make clear the complex procedure in which the Nkisi figure
gradually originates as both a work of art and a functioning fetish. Some partial results may be
concluded: 1. Many of the unfinished figures in the collections and museums are not Minkisi
but Biteki (non-potential statuettes). They were probably bought either from the artists or in the
market. 2. The non finito of these Nkisi figures may appear in both the material and artistic senses. 3.
The reason for their non finito is to be found in the specific division of the working process between
the carver and the nganga, rather than in the different evaluation by the society of the fetishes on
the one hand and of the basic sculpture on the other.
The correlation of the work of the wood carver to that of the nganga is crucial for the final artistic
quality of an Nkisi figure. Several of the instances already discussed showed how the carver
technically prepared for the nganga's intervention. Finally, it seems possible to demonstrate how the
carver's anticipation of this cooperation appears in some of the artistic features of the statuette. One
of the arguments offered regarding the carelessness in the making of the Nkisi figures is the exclusion
of the forearms. This feature contrasts, in the eyes of the Western viewer, with the anthropomorphic
character of the figure and may awaken the impression of mutilated body. This motif, unusual in
African sculpture on the whole, probably manifests the carver's respect for the completion of the
figure by the nganga by giving the latter greater freedom for attaching a receptacle.
The statuette with its arms behind its back was interpreted as being like a slave with tied hands.
Drawing an analogy with some other figures having only one forearm behind the back, while the
second arm was occupied with another and probably symbolic gesture, I prefer to consider the placing
of the arms behind the back as a compositional matter and not as a realistic gesture illustrating the
depicted person's status.
Very rare are the Nkisi figures lacking gesture, with arms falling straight down along the body. This
rarity encourages me to assume that in general the arms are a substantial part of the fetish, being the
carriers of the gesture. The gesture cannot be read, in my opinion, as a narrative element in Western
terms, but as a vehicle for the potential of the fetish. The raised arm, for example, seems to be more a
sign of prestige in the hierarchy of fetish potencies than a killing or menacing gesture. Returning to
the relationship between the arms and the receptacle, some gestures appear to aim at the resin box.
These gestures are probably somehow symbolically linked with the substances which the nganga is
supposed to introduce. Later the receptacle added by the nganga may cover the hands and the
forearm. Thus, the carver composed the figure giving to the nganga a kind of visual suggestion to
attach a smaller or larger box.
The artistic result depends, in this specific division of the working process, very much upon the
nganga's visual sensibility and experience and upon mutual understanding. Numerous instances show
the resin box corresponding or interacting in its pattern and volume with the proportions and the
angular or round forms of the figure. The carver often goes rather far in his visual suggestions. The
poses of the figures and the distribution of their mass also suggest to the nganga the approximate
shapes of the receptacle or headdress. The result depends very much upon the nganga's ability to
read the carver's visual language. His added attributes and paraphernalia may complete and
emphasize the balance of the volumes and forms of the statuette, and may operate more or less in
the interplay of its protruded shapes. Or, in the opposite case, the added elements may more or less
suppress the reading of the visual message. This message plays, with the Nkisi figures, its specific
aesthetic role, being neither implication nor illustration of any precise function.
Finally, some rather general conclusions may be given:
1. The precise function of the Nkisi figures of the Lower Congo does not, and did not, in history,
implicate their particular forms and types, the assignments of the fetish being mostly oral and magical.
2. The artist carved the statuette ignorant of its function in terms of the fetish ritual, and therefore, he
was not able to illustrate the function realistically.
3. The final form and type of the Nkisi figure does not result (in opposition to the Western art of the
19th and 20th centuries) solely from the artist's vision and intention, but from the cooperation of both
the carver and the nganga and eventually the consumers as well, and is affected by the nganga's
comprehension of the carver's visual impulses. The artist's suggestions more or less regulate the
artistic completion of the figure, but do not intervene in its function.
4. Particular features of the morphology and of the types such as pose, gesture, and composition are
not psychological and realistic interpretations of the functional assignments of the figures, but have
traditional symbolic meanings.
5. Lower Congo has been exposed, since the 15th century, to strong European cultural impact. The
art of this area is often used to serve as an example of the thesis that Western influence expressed
itself in the realism of this art, in the choice of its motifs and character of its style. The Nkisi figures do
show the integration of some foreign elements and objects. On the
other hand, the evidence discussed in this study indicates that the figures did not undergo any
fundamental change in conception. It is the interpretation of them, rather than their own character,
which sometimes corresponds to the Western standpoint of the second half of the 19th century. The
Nkisi figures themselves, however, remained African.
(Notes below the images)
|The figures mentioned in the text
|FIG 2. STANDING FIGURE.
WOOD, MIXED MEDIA. KONGO.
23 1/8". THE MUSEUM OF
PRIMITIVE ART. NEW YORK
|The figure is not in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY.
The photo above is one I took in 2005.
|FIG 3. STANDING FIGURE WITH
RECEPTACLE. WOOD, MIXED MEDIA.
KONGO. 10 5/8" . NEUES MUSEUM,
SAMMLUNGEN FUR VOLKERKUNDE,
|FIG 4. STANDING FIGURE WITH
RECEPTACLE. WOOD, MIXED MEDIA.
KONGO. 14 1/4". THE MUSEUM OF
PRIMITIVE ART, NEW YORK.
|FIG 5. STANDING FIGURE. WOOD.
COLLECTED IN THE BOMA AREA.
7 3/4". MUSEE ROYAL, DE L'AFRIQUE
|FIG 6. STANDING FIGURE WITH
NAILS AND RECEPTACLE. WOOD
AND MIXED MEDIA. YUMBE. 3' 4".
LINDEN MUSEUM, STUTTGART
|FIG 7. STANDING FIGURE WITH TUBES AND RECEPTACLE.
WOOD, MIXED MEDIA. COLLECTED AT UPPER MAYUMBE
AREA. 12 1/4". NEUES MUSEUM, SAMMLUNGEN FUR
VOLKERKUNDE, ST. GALLEN
|FIG 8. STANDING FIGURE WITH RECEPTACLE ON THE CROWN
(DETAIL). WOOD, MIXED MEDIA. KONGO. HEIGHT OF WHOLE FIGURE
32". MUSEE DE L'HOMME, PARIS
|FIG 9. STANDING FIGURE WITH
RECEPTACLE. WOOD, MIXED MEDIA.
KONGO. 14". MUSEE DE L HOMME,
|FIG 10. STANDING FIGURE WITH CHAIN
ATTACHED. WOOD, VARIOUS MEDIA.
KONGO. 7". MUSEE ROYAL DE L'AFRIQUE
NKISI FIGURES, Notes from Zdenka Volavkova
1. This study includes a substantial part of a paper given at the Symposium on Traditional African Art organized by
the Peabody Museum and CAAS at Harvard University on May 4-7, 1971. It is a component of a research project on
the history of Kongo art. I am gratefully indebted to the University of Kansas and the Faculty of Fine Arts at York
University, Toronto, which supported my project. I am also grateful to the staff of the museums where I studied the
fetishes: Musee Royal de I'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren; Musee de l'Homme, Paris; Neues Museum, St. Gallen; and the
Museum of Primitive Art, New York. I especially wish to thank Professor A. Maesen for his friendly discussion of my
2. Les Arts Plustiquesdu Congo-Beige, 1959, pp. 43-44.
3. William Fagg, "Introduction," The Webster Plus* Collection of African Art, British Museum, London, 1953.
4. R. P. J. Van Wing, Etudes Bakongo 11. Religion et Magic, Bruxelles, 1938, pp. 123-126.
5. John H. Weeks, Among the Primitive Bukongo, Lon¬don, 1914, pp. 235-242.
6. J. Macs, figurines Na Moganga dc Guerison des Populations du Bus Congo, Pro Medico (Paris) 1927, nr. 3, pp.
81-86; nr. 4, pp. 68-73.
7. J. Maes, Figurines Npezo du Bus Congo, Pro Medico (Paris) 1929, nr. 2, pp. 48-52.
8. J. Maes, Les Figurines Sculptees du Bas Congo, Africa (London) 1930, pp. 354-356.
9. J. Maes, Figurines du Bas Congo, Pro Medico (Paris) 1930, nr. 1, pp. 4-7.
10. J. Maes, Figurines Sculptees, p. 351.
11. Ibid., p. 348.
12. Ibid., p. 354.
13. The Kongo fetishes in the St. Gallen collection were discussed by Z. Volavkova ("Nkisi Figuren vorn unteren
Kongo als Kunstgegenstande," DU, Zurich, in press). There also, the problem of the ambiguity of the function was
14. J. Maes, Figurines Npezo, loc. cit.
15. E. G. Ravenstein, ed., The Strange Adventures- of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the Adjoining Regions,
London 1901, pp. 56-58.
16. J. H. Weeks, op. cit., p. 219.
17. Karl E. Laman, Dictionnaire K-okongo-Francais, Bruxelles, 1936 (Reprint 1964), I, pp. 392-393.
18. J. H. Weeks, op. cit., pp. 237-238.
19. Ibid., pp. 223.
20. Ibid., pp. 222-223,237.
21. Olfred Dapper, Umstdndliche und eigentliche Besch-reihung von Afrika und eigentliche Beschreibung der Insulen
in Afrika, 1670, New York, Johnson Reprint Corp. 1967, p. 536.
22. R. P. J. Van Wing, op. cit., pp. 133, 190-192.
23. Ibid., pp. 191-192.
24. Ibid., pi VIII.
25. K. E. Laman, op. cit., I, p. 311; II, pp. 725-726.
26. R. P. J. Van Wing, op. cit., p. 124.
27. J. H. Weeks, op. cit., p. 225.
28. P. Butaye who stayed at the Catholic mission at Boko (Kwangu) mentioned Nkondi as a healing idol ("Les fetiches
et les malefices," Revue Missionnaire desjesujtcs Beiges, 1899, p. 310).
Also Gilmont 1899, (quoted by Cyr. Van Overbergh, Les Mayombe, 1907, p. 292.) denoted it as a fetish healing
A. J. Wauters ("Les fetiches," Congo illustre: Voyages et travaux des Beiges, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1892, non pag.)
designated Nkodia as a god of victory.
29. Congo Art and Society. Art of the Congo. Catalogue. Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis^ 1967, p. 21. See also
H. W. Hall, "A Congo Fetish or Divining Image from the Coast Region," Museum Journal, Philadelphia, 1924, pp.
30. J. H. Weeks, op. cit., p. 225.
31. Jiirgen Zwernemann, "Spiegel- und Nagelplastiken vom unteren Kongo im Linden-Museum," in Tribus. Stuttgart,
1961. Neue Folge, Nr. 10, pp. 18-20.
32. Narrative of an Expedition to explore the River Zaire...in 1816 under Captain]. K. Tuckey, R.M., London, 1818, p.
33. Dapper, op. cit.,_p.530.
34. "A Curious and Exact Account of a Voyage to Congo in the years 1666 and 1667 by the R. R. F. F. Michael
Angelo of Gattina and Denis de Carli of Piacenza...," in A General Collection of the best and most interesting
Voyages and Travels in all parts of the world, by John Pinkerton, London 1814, p. 160.
35. Philippo Pigafetta, A Reporte of the Kingdome of the Congo, a Region of Africa, and of the Countries that border
rounde about the same...Drawen out of the writings and discourses of Odoardo Lopes, London 1597, p. 148.
36. Loc. cit.
37. Dapper, op. cit., p. 569.
38. J. H. Tuckey, op. cit., p. 165.
39. Described for the first time by W. H. Bentley (Pioneering on the Congo, London 1900, p. 36) and introduced to
ethnological literature by the Swedish ethnographer Ernst Olson in Manke: Santu, der kreuzformige jagdfetisch der
Bakongo, Volkerkunde (Wien), 10-12 Heft, jg. 4, pp. 217-223.
40. A. Doutreloux, "Fetiches d'investiture au Mayumbe," Folia scientifica Africa central, 31 Dec. 1959, Vol. V., No. 4,
41. Tata Nsiesie, Notes sur les Christs et Statues de I'ancien Congo, Brousse (Leopoldville), 1939, No. 3, pp. 32-34.
42. J. H. Weeks, op. cit., p. 261.
43. "A voyage to Congo and Several Other Countries, chiefly in Southern Africk by Father Jerom Merolla da Sorrento,
a Capuchin and Apostolic Missioner in the year 1682", in J. Pinkerton, oji. rit.. p. 238.
44. Dapper, op. cit., p. 535.
45. Z. Volavkova, "Nhisi Figure,, vom unteren Kongo als
Kunstgegenstande," DU, Zurich, in press.
46. See for instance, R. P. J. Van Wing, op. cit., p. 127.
47. J. H. Weeks, op. cit., p. 232, quotes teke. Karl E. Laman, op. cit. II, p, 960, quotes teki.
48. Robert Hottot, "Teke Fetishes," (prepared for publication by Frank Willett), Journal of Royal Anthropological
Institute, Vol. 86, No. 1, (1956), pp. 25-36.
49. J. H. Weeks, op. cit., p. 233.
50. See for instance, Dapper, loc. cit.
51. V. Volavka and Z. Volavkova, De Statua, Introduction to the Theory and Historical Technology of Sculpture,
Praha, 1959, pp. 314-323.
52. Narrative of an Expedition to explore the River Zaire...in 1816 under Captain]. K. Tuckey, R.M., London, 1818, pp.
53. See for instance, the detailed descriptions of the nganga's materials by W. H. Bentley, op. cit., p. 257, or by L.
Kiener, op. cit., p. 23.
54. J. H. Weeks, op. cit., p. 385.