Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Nkondi or Nkonde Nail Fetish

Kongo Oath-taking and Healing Figure
Fetishes were protective figures used by individuals, families, or whole communities to destroy or weaken evil spirits, prevent or cure illnesses, repel bad deeds, solemnize contracts or oath-taking, and decide arguments. A diviner or holy person would activate the statue, using magical substances. Fetishes gained power and were effective because people believed in them.

The nkondi are the most powerful of the nkisi. They were used to identify and hunt down unknown wrongdoers such as thieves, and people who were believed to cause sickness or death by occult means. They were also used to punish people who swore false oaths and villages which broke treaties.

To inspire the nkondi to action, it was both invoked and provoked. Invocations, in bloodthirsty language, encouraged it to punish the guilty party. It would also be provoked by having gunpowder exploded in front of it, and having nails hammered into it. They were also used to literally "hammer out agreements"...with clear implications as to what would happen to people who broke the agreements.

Magic is practiced throughout Black Africa, but there are distinctions to be made among those who participate in it. The witch doctor is seen as someone who undertakes on his own account a personal communication with evil powers - suspected of casting spells, he is feared and rejected as the most dangerous individual in the tribe. The accusation of sorcery is a serious one.

The diviner, or fetishist, operates in principle for the good of all. His help is sought in times of need, for he is seen as the mediator between members of the tribe and all the powers of darkness. For this reason he also acts as healer.

The various attempts to influence the fearsome powers of the supernatural through the mediation of statues or fetishes have acquired particular intensity in the regions round the mouth of the River Congo, home of the Kongo, Yombe and Vili tribes, and this is also the case in the east of Zaire, among the Songye.

Magical objects were for many years little known in Europe, as Christian missionaries working in Africa tracked them down and had them burnt. Certain statues which were brought back to Europe by religious men, allegedly for documentation, were kept in secret and could not be studied. They were much feared for they seemed, even to European eyes, to have real power, a belief almost universally accepted in 17th-century Europe. Olfert Dapper was the first to look dispassionately at these "fetish" objects and to dare to describe them.

Property of the Rosenberg Collection
Recent work has led to a better understanding. They are wooden carvings, either anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, which are covered with a variety of objects such as nails or metal blades. The cavities in their back or stomach contain "medicines" - grains, hair, teeth or fingernails - which are held together with various binding materials. Pieces of fabric, feathers or lumps of clay are sometimes present.

Finally, bits of mirror, shiny metal or shells are used to close the cavities or to mark the eyes. Very often the faces alone are carved in detail, while the rest of the body - destined to be hidden under these various additional features - is sculpted more summarily. The figure's genitals may even be missing, either because they have never been carved or because they have been removed by a zealous missionary.

These figures have only a remote ancestral connection and they are distinguished from reliquaries by the absence of skulls or large bones, although some may sometimes fit into either category.

Generally grouped as Nkisi, they were the result of the combined work of two men, the carver and the fetishist. The former created the shape, but without the latter (the Nganga) the figure had no meaning. It was the Nganga who filled it with magic substances and completed the rituals which gave it supernatural powers.

Article and images, courtesy of Rand African Art 

Nkonde Nail Fetishes are often sold on eBay for around US$ 3,000 to US$ 5,000... 
What's In Your Attic?


Monday, February 13, 2017

The African Maternity Figures

Afo peoples, Nigeria, 19th century
Since the 1940s, the excavations in the inland delta region of the Niger River near Djenne in Mali have yielded numerous sculptured terra-cotta, cast copper-alloy, and gold figures representing humans and animals. These sculptures originated in advanced, flourishing cultures that may have existed as early as the eighth century A.D. or as late as the seventeenth century.

Figures representing a mother and child seem to occur less frequently than other subjects, such as chiefs or warriors on horseback, reclining or kneeling females, or animals, especially snakes. The meaning of these ancient maternity figures is unknown. Perhaps such figures served as symbols of the primordial mother or another mythical figure in the history of a clan in which the sculpture originated. Regrettably, the stratigraphic context in which most of these objects have been discovered and other pertinent data are unknown. Even so, it is possible to date the objects.

The proliferation of decorative details on the figure includes serpents, which are depicted as zigzags. Snakes commonly occur in the visual arts as well as in the oral traditions of numerous peoples of the inland delta region. Snakes play an important role in the cosmology and mythical origins of the clan. For example, snakes are king makers, designating the successful candidate by touching him with the nose. Snakes are often considered to be symbols of immortality throughout sub-Saharan Africa because they "renew" themselves by shedding their skin.

Asante group, Akan peoples, Ghana
19th-20th century (wood)
Fertility and children are the most frequent themes in the wooden sculptures of the Asante. Thus the most numerous works are akua'ba fertility figures and mother-and-child figures. In traditional Asante society, in which inheritance was through the maternal line, a woman's essential role was to bear children, preferably girls to continue the matrilineage. Sculptured mother-and-child figures show the mother nursing or holding her breast, as exemplified by this figure. Such gestures express Asante ideas about nurturing, the family, and the continuity of a matrilineage through a daughter or of a state through a son.

This figure does not depict an ordinary mother. Rather, as indicated by her elevated sandaled feet, the figure represents a queen mother as she would sit in state on formal occasions. Such royal maternity figures were kept with the venerated seats of ancestral chiefs in special rooms, or they were housed in the shrines of powerful deities that were particularly concerned with the well-being of a royal person, perhaps a queen mother.

According to Yoruba belief, children are blessings from the gods. Before the advent of modern medicine, women petitioned certain deities for fertility and the birth of a healthy infant. The shrines to these deities - Erinle, Yemoja, Shango, Ogun, and others - were adorned with sculptured figures representing a mother and child, as exemplified by this figure. The absence of cult attributes makes specific identification of this figure impossible. The kneeling position is a gesture of respect, devotion, and submission. Thus the figure represented in the carving is probably a petitioner rather than a deity. The sculpture may have been a votive offering from a woman who had successfully petitioned for a child, a priest or priestess of a cult, or even the entire body of

Afo maternity figures are thought to represent an ancestral mother and are owned by individual villages.These figures are brought out of their shrines once a year for the Aya ceremony. At this time, men pray for increased fertility in their wives and make gifts of food and money to the ancestor.

Extant maternity figures from the Afo are usually monoxylous, that is, carved from one piece, and are usually shown with only one child. It was customary in the grasslands Batufam Kingdom to have portrait statues carved of the new fon (king) and the wife who bore his first child. According to royal custom, the heir to the throne could not rule until he proved his fertility. The sculptures were executed within two years of the beginning of the reign and were used in the rites of installation of the successor.

Female figure with child
Kongo people, Congo
The Kongo Kingdom flourished from c. 1300 to the mid-seventeenth century. The Kongo were the first people of Central Africa to make contact with the Portuguese navigators, who first arrived in 1482 and brought with them Catholic missionaries, merchants, and artisans. The Kongo aristocracy embraced Christianity and Western culture, and trade with Portugal resulted in increased wealth and military power. From the capital at Sao Salvador in present-day Angola, Kongo rule extended into portions of Zaire, Congo, Cabinda, and numerous small coastal and inland chiefdoms in Angola. Around the mid-seventeenth century, the once-powerful kingdom began to founder and shrink. Finally, it collapsed and became decentralized.

Among the symbols of rank belonging to Kongo kings and chiefs were scepters (mvuala) made of hardwood and usually topped by an ancestor figure carved of precious ivory. Very often the ancestor so represented was a female (Cornet 1971, 48). Because power was transmitted through the female line, rulers were selected from among the matrilineage. The king's mother was titled the "queen mother," and although she did not share rule with her son, she held a position of respect and privilege.

Article and images, courtesy of Rand African Art 

A Kongo-Yombe Maternity Figure has recently been sold for US$ 3,525,000 by Sotheby's... 
What's In Your Attic?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Head of a Queen Mother (Iyoba)

Head of a Queen Mother (Iyoba)
1750–1800 - Nigeria, Court of Benin
Courtesy: The MET Museum of Art
In the Benin kingdom, the iyoba, or mother of the oba (king), occupies an important and historically significant place within Benin's political hierarchy. The title was first conferred upon Idia, the mother of king Esigie, who used her political skill and supernatural abilities to save her son's kingdom from dissolution in the late fifteenth century. Ever since that time, queen mothers have been considered powerful protectors of their sons and, by extension, the kingdom itself. Because of the enormous esteem in which they are held, iyobas enjoy privileges second only to the oba himself, such as a separate palace, a retinue of female attendants, and the right to commission cast brass sculptures for religious or personal use.

Ancestral altars dedicated to past iyobas, like those of past kings, are furnished with cast brass commemorative heads. The heads of queen mothers are distinguished from those of kings by the forward-pointing peaks of their coral-beaded crowns. Commemorative heads of iyobas hold to the same stylistic chronology as those of obas. Earlier heads were cast with thinner walls and display tight beaded collars that fit snugly beneath the chin. Later versions have thicker walls, exhibit enlarged cylindrical collars that cover the face up to the lower lip, and are designed with a circular opening behind the peak of the crown to hold a carved ivory tusk. This head of an iyoba dates from the eighteenth century. While its high collar and pierced crown place it with later examples, the sensitive, naturalistic modeling of the face is reminiscent of the earliest commemorative heads.

Article: Courtesy of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Image: Courtesy of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Date: 1750–1800
Geography: Nigeria, Court of Benin
Culture: Edo peoples
Medium: Brass
Dimensions: H. 16 3/4 x Diam. 11 3/4 in. (42.5 x 29.9 cm)
Classification: Metal-Sculpture
Credit Line: Bequest of Alice K. Bache, 1977
Accession Number: 1977.187.36

Benin bronze heads are easily sold for $12,000 upwards on eBay... What's In Your Attic?