University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Nail Figures from Zaire [Object of the Day #11]

By: Amy Ellsworth

19th Century Nail Figures from Zaire
19th Century Nail Figures from Zaire

Meet the Nkisi N’kondi nail figures from the lower Zaire River region (Kongo). These 19th century figures, studded with nails, are used by Kongo individuals who are looking for justice, for solutions to particular problems, or for protection against malevolent forces. By promising something to the figure a client ensures the assistance of the supernatural forces controlling the image. After making such an oath the client hammers a nail or blade into the wood to represent the agreement they have made. Magical material lodged behind the mirrors in the abdomens or on the heads of the figures attracts spirits and power to the figures. Special practitioners are responsible for interpreting the decisions of the images or directing their magic to achieve the desired ends.

Penn Museum Object #s 30-46-2, AF 5361, AF 3684.

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