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Nail figure.

Looking carefully

Although the fearsome figure shown in the centerspread is less than three feet tall, we feel the impact of its menacing power immediately. The gesture of the upraised arm (which once held a knife or spear), die piercing, almond-shaped eyes, the open mouth revealing teeth, and the stance of slightly bowed legs atop elevated feet all seem to threaten or warn us. A variety of nails and blades hammered into the body also contribute to its effect of restrained aggression. A single figure, it exemplifies the concentrated power of the individual typical of most African art.

The term animism, often used to describe tile belief that objects possess living souls, is a belief commonly held in Africa. This type of figure, commonly known as a fetish in the Western world but called an nkisi nkondi by the Kongo people, was believed to possess hidden, healing powers which allowed people to regain wholeness of mind and body, to settle disputes, and to swear solemn oaths. It was carved from a sacred tree, kept in a special place because of its power, and used in rituals conducted by a priest for the people of the village.

Medicine packets concocted by the priest were placed in cavities located in the belly and the back of the head, or attached elsewhere on the body (see lower left) in order to activate powerful spirit forces. Medicine consisted of materials such as earth taken from ancestral graves or white clay from a riverbed. They were wrapped in cloth packets, bound with raffia or wicker, and sometimes adorned with feathers, necklaces of glass beads, buttons, brass studs, animal fur or mirrors. Medicine also consisted of tile blades and nails hammered into the nkisi nakondi as markers of promises to be kept and formal declarations of good will. Although Westerners often mistakenly associate the nails with voodoo and the intent to harm someone, they actually served to seal treaties between warring towns or all agreement nut to seek revenge through sorcery after a divorce.

The color white is associated with dead ancestors and the spirit world in Africa. The white in this nkisi nkondi's eyes and mouth indicate that these openings functioned as channels between invisible, internal spirit powers and the external world of the here and now. A conical hat, similar to those worn by priests and chiefs in the Kongo, once covered the now missing medicine packets in the back of the head. A raffia skirt would have covered most of the legs and a small beard of clay with a raffia fringe may have been attached to the chin. The rectangular cavity in the belly, considered to be the center of power, was probably covered with a large, white cowrie shell or a mirror which deflected evil forces.

This nkisi nkondi is an assemblage of different materials, added by different people over time. Owned by an entire village, it had a valuable function when a priest added the proper medicine or magic. The number of bristling nails indicate that the figure was used by many people. Although stripped of many of its medicine bundles and much of its clothing, and broken or damaged in several areas, this figure still possesses an awesome, indefinable power and presence all its own.


The vast continent of Africa, which is roughly twice as big as the United States, includes incredibly diverse geography, climates and cultural groups. Within the country of Zaire, located in central Africa, there are several cultural groups, each with its own belief systems, customs and ceremonial objects. The nkisi nkondi, or nail figure, from the Kongo area of Zaire served a different purpose and represents a different visual tradition than the initiation mask created by the Kuba people of Zaire (shown here).

This stylized, symmetrical mask is covered with brightly colored, geometric patterns of beads and cowrie shells which contrast with the bristling, random nail textures of the nkisi nkondi. Topped by an almost comical elephantine trunk and tusks with a leonine mane of raffia and real hair attached below, the effect of this mask is festive in contrast to the menacing quality of the nkisi nkondi.

Typically helmet masks like this were used during the initiation training period of Kuba boys, at the time of their transition from childhood to adulthood. They were worn with garments that completely concealed the identity of the wearer, and were always seen in motion during colorful, dramatic spectacles intended to teach the history, myths, social structure and moral values of the Kuba culture and to celebrate the boys' rebirth as men. Unlike social gatherings in the Western world such as Halloween when people dress up in masks and costumes for amusement, masquerades in the Kuba culture were serious events which connected the Kuba people with their mythical, sacred beginnings while allowing them to display their wealth and prestige.

Key concepts

Animism--the belief that all objects, animals, earth, water and vegetation are alive and inhabited with souls. These souls are non-material, possess their own thoughts and will, and are destined to survive the destruction of their physical shell or container. The wood used to carve a nail figure was thought to embody the soul, or spirit power, of the tree from which it came, a tree whose roots had received water and sunlight from the sky. The act of carving modified and intensified the power inherent in the material itself.

Assemblage--A twentieth-century art form created by combining various elements, usually found objects not intended as art materials, as well as elements painted, drawn, carved or modeled by the artist.

Geometric--The use of simple geometric shapes (straight lines, circles, squares) to create pattern, design and abstraction in art. Stylized art is characterized by repeated, simplified geometric shapes which emphasize or distort universal characteristics of natural forms rather then rendering their individual details.

Suggested activities

* Discuss charms and amulets used by Americans today such as lucky pennies, rabbit feet, rings, lockets, horseshoes, four-leaf clovers and crystals, as well as religious objects thought to embody spiritual power--statues, crosses and crucifixes, and the rituals in which they are used. Explain that the Kuba initiation mask and the Kongo nail figure were sacred to the people who used them.

* Compare the surfaces of the nkisi nkondi and the mask with your students. Which piece is covered by a bristling, random arrangement of objects? Which has smoothly organized geometric shapes and patterns made of beads and shells? Look for chevron, triangle and rectangle shapes and checkerboard and interlace patterns on the mask. Explain that cowrie shells were obtained from the East Indies through trade with Egypt. They symbolized female fertility because of their shape, as well as wealth and power because they were used as money. The nkisi nkondi may have had a large cowrie shell in its belly. Ask students to describe how cowrie shells are used on the mask. (They are arranged end-to-end in parallel, diagonal rows on the headdress and in closely layered, alternating rows on the base.) Explain that, in Africa, metal is a material almost as prestigious as leopard skin, then ask students to identity where metal is used in both pieces. (The nails on the nkisi nkondi are metal and the smooth plates on the face of the mask are metal.) Finally, ask students to compare how the surfaces of the nkisi nkondi and the mask reflect the different purposes they served.

* Have students construct assemblage figures of wood blocks which embody a certain power or quality that they desire, i.e., courage, physical strength, athletic prowess, patience, beauty, etc. What expressive gestures and body positions will they use? Provide a variety of materials and found objects to add to the surface--thumbtacks, buttons, string, raffia, dried beans--as well as a limited number of colors of paint. What will the colors symbolize? Will they choose random textures, tightly organized patterns, or a combination of both? Encourage students to study reproductions of assemblages by Picasso, Marisol and other modern and contemporary artists for additional ideas.

* Motivate students to make their own masks by asking them to find the underlying geometric shapes in reproductions of a variety of masks and portraits. Discuss how the masks that they will make might he used (e.g., in a rite of passage, or a ritual celebration). Provide a variety of geometric pieces of cardboard and demonstrate building up layers of shapes as well as building out from the edges of the base shape. After students have composed and glued their own masks, they can be painted and decorated with dried beans and raffia. When they are finished, have students describe (orally or in writing) how their masks might be used and who would use them. (This activity could be done individually or in small groups.) What is the setting? What kind of music and movements would fit?

* Read aloud and display the picture book Shadow, translated from the French of Blaise Cendrars and illustrated by Marcia Brown (New York: McMillan, 1982). This enigmatic book contains stunning images based on Marcia Brown's travels in Africa, on authentic African masks, and on photographs of various African people and places. It incorporates African customs such as the oral tradition of storytelling, awareness and respect for ancesters, ceremonial masks, and tile use of white to symbolize life in death, or spirit. The powerful illustrations, which are painted, printed, cut out and collaged, can be used to motivate a variety of mixed media projects.

Recommended reading

Sieber, Roy. African Art in the Cycle of Life. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.

Thompson, Robert Farris. African Art in Motion: Icon and Act. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974.

Vogel, Susan. African Aesthetics: The Carlo Monzino Collection. New York: The Center for African Art, 1987.

Available for purchase

ART/artifact: A Curriculum Packet for Teachers contains information, ten slides of African art, related activities, postcards of Western art from The Carnegie Museum of Art, maps, and recommended books. $35.00 per packet (Pennsylvania residents include $1.32 unless tax exempt).

African Art Poster featuring the Kongo nail figure and the Kuba initiation mask. $15.00 per poster (Pennsylvania residents add $.60 unless tax exempt). Send check or money order to The Museum Shops, The Carnegie, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. 412-622-8833.

Bay Hallowell is Assistant Curator of Education, Children "S Programs. The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
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Title Annotation:the African art of 'nkisi nkondi'
Author:Hallowell, Bay
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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