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The Art of JAMA |

Nkisi Nkondi (Nail Figure) Congolese, Republic of the Congo

Thomas B. Cole, MD, MPH
JAMA. 2016;315(4):330-331. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.14073.
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The Kongo people of southwestern Africa are renowned for their raffia textiles, metal sculptures, funerary steles, and ritual icons. In the late 19th or early 20th century, a Kongo craftsman carved the wooden figure pictured here for the purpose of conjuring an nkisi, a type of familiar spirit that could be called upon to witness and enforce transactions in the community. It was probably exported from the Kongo region as a curiosity by a trader from Europe or North America in this era of disruptive cultural exchange (JAMA cover, September 12, 2012). Nkisi figures were fashioned from simple wooden statuettes purchased in the market for a few yards of cloth. At this stage a carving would have expressive facial features and a hollowed-out chamber in the belly or back of the head but otherwise would be unadorned. An nganga, or diviner, would then personalize the statuette and invest it with mystical powers by applying face paint, a headdress, clothing, a mirror, or other enhancements. Some nkisi figures, called nkisi nkondi, had aggressive stances to intimidate enemies, deflect malevolent spells, and warn bargainers to abide by their agreements. The raised arm of the figure in this image, which originally held a weapon, identifies it as an nkisi nkondi.

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Nkisi Nkondi (Nail Figure), circa 1880-1920, Congolese, Republic of the Congo. Wood, pigment, iron, ivory, cotton, and other materials. 80 × 39.4 × 17.8 cm. Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art (http://www.cmoa.org/) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; gift of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, by exchange, 78.20. Photograph © 2016 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

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