Field Trip: African Carved Female Figure
HOST: This is a Kongo power figure from the late 19th century. Why was it created? What was its power? And why is it pierced with dozens of nails? ROADSHOW met up with John Buxton at the Birmingham Museum of Art to find out more.
The Kongo are a Bantu-speaking people located in the Congo Basin in the northwestern side of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This particular figure is probably late 19th century. Some have been documented as early as the 17th century. This is called nkisi nkondi. "Nkisi" means that it is a power figure, "nkondi" means that it has nails or blades actually driven into the body. This would have been owned and used by an nganga, which was a spiritual healer, to impose conformity and to support the social structure. He first would commission the carving. Once that process was completed, then he would actually finish the piece off by adding the substances that we see here. And what we've found, as the nganga could get together with two parties that want to make an agreement, and to bind the agreement, they would jam a nail or a blade into the figure. This process wakens the figure, it empowers the figure, and it allows the figure to actually perform these amazing functions. The nkisi nkondi are most often male. It's extremely rare to have a female figure. Olfert Dapper, who was a self-proclaimed physician and writer in the 17th century, documented the role of the female nkisi nkondi and said that these could be used as protection against lightning or sickness. The female nkisi nkondi had the power to locate and kill thieves, and in one case actually could kill a man by crushing his body and having all the blood just drain out. HOST: This figure looks to be about two feet. Is that a common size for these?
These figures can run from just slightly under a foot to over five feet tall. HOST: This figure is here at the museum, but if we were to find one similar to this, what would be your estimation of value?
In recent sales in both New York and Paris in 2013 and 2014, comparables have sold between $300,000 and $500,000. HOST: I would say that's pretty powerful.
I would agree. HOST: It's a beautiful piece, thanks for sharing it. It's great to see it right here at the museum.
Thank you, Mark.
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