|Kongo Oath-taking and Healing Figure|
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.
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|
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
What's In Your Attic?