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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Standing figure (Nkondi)

Standing figure (Nkondi)

One stereotype of a fetish clouds our recognition of what this figure once was. The sight of nails being pounded into a human figure is a frequent image in Christianity (representing the Crucifixion), but when an unknown African does it, the figure is called a fetish and is often subjected to flagrantly false accounts of how it was used. To remedy this misunderstanding, the museum consulted with a renowned philosopher from the Kongo, who explains the words and ideas that the nkondi generates.
Wood, iron, fiber, beads, string, glass, feathers, chalk
31 11/16 x 13 3/8 x 8 11/16 in. (80.5 x 34 x 22 cm)
Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company
Provenance: [Merton Simpson Gallery, New York]; purchased from gallery by Katherine White, Aug. 1968
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

It is we who have constructed the world of the fetish, not the original makers.

John Mack, 1995

Why This Isn't a "Fetish"

Fetish is a word of European origin that was used to describe a multitude of objects whose value to indigenous people was not deemed rational. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, Dutch traders perceived the African valuation of inanimate objects to be the basis of a flawed economy. They promoted the notion of coins as an appropriate symbolic form derived from the abstract nature of God. Whenever the Dutch encountered people whose value system was not coin operated or involved devotion to objects, the term "fetish" was applied. During the nineteenth century, "fetish" began to be used by Europeans to describe their own habits. Karl Marx launched a theory about commodity fetishism, and into the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud and others began to map a pathology of fixations on certain items of clothing (shoes, gloves, underwear) and parts of the body (feet, hair). While this use of fetish expanded to suit European needs, it was not much more than a word applied by outsiders to art that a Kongolese would describe in far more exacting language.
Sigmund Freud, ca. 1921, photograph by Max Halberstadt
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Max Halberstadt, LC-USZC4-4946

20th Century Kongo Figures

"Dieux Nègres," from L'Assiette au beurre, 1904, František Kupka
As an act of political protest, an artist in 1904 published a cartoon that clearly depicts an African in the act of pounding a nail "to get his god's attention." This cartoon was published just as a major scandal was being unveiled-the atrocities committed by the Belgians to force people of the Congo to extract rubber so that tires could be made for automobiles. Harsh conditions, forced labor and murder, torture and epidemics resulted in the deaths of an estimated ten million people.
Futu nkisi mbuki (bundle of medicine for a healer), Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1972
On the streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the political country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one can still see the circular wrapping of medicines in a manner that is true to Kongo cosmology.

Discovering and Converting the King of the Kongo

The arrival of the Portuguese before the king of Kongo in 1491
In 1491, an expedition of Portuguese walked inland to Mbanza Kongo, a capital city perched atop a plateau in the Crystal Mountains. They found King Nzinga a Nkuwa seated on a raised wooden throne with ivory inlay, with his queen, wives, nobles and chiefs surrounding him. His arms were laden with bracelets of copper, and his garments were woven of raffia. The leading Portuguese emissary approached him, knelt, and kissed his hand. King Nzinga responded by taking a handful of earth, pressing it against his heart and then against the Portuguese. Kongo musicians played one song twelve times on their ivory trumpets to honor the twelve generations of Kongo kings. One hundred years later, an illustrator depicted this event with the Portuguese on his knees in front of the King.
"The King of the Congo, Afonso, Converted to Christianity, Orders Idols to Be Burnt"
King Nzinga a Nkuwa died in 1506, and his son, Afonso I, inherited the throne and established an era of remarkable leadership. Afonso became famous for his commitment to Christianity and made Catholicism the state religion. Reports to the king of Portugal commend his preaching, his exercise and his destruction of "idols." A rendering of Afonso's actions depicts a fire consuming a bundle of fantastic creatures with curling tails and fearsome faces. During his era, Afonso also presented metal crucifixes to all his chiefs and promoted the images of the saints to replace other charms.

The Crucifixion - European and Kongo Versions

St. Sebastian, ca. 1457-59, Andrea Mantegna
Portuguese priests of the fifteenth century brought crosses, crucifixes and religious books created for Catholics to assist in converting the Kongo to Christianity. It is not known how much influence these Christian wares had on Kongo sculpture at that time, but the Crucifixion was bound to be a prominent theme. Images like that of St. Sebastian, whose torso is riddled with arrows, were common. Kongo art from that time period has not been preserved, however, so a comparison has to be made with a later era.
Crucifix with Wood Stand, 17th-17th century, Kongo, 81.17.842
This Kongo version of a crucifix is rendered in brass. Historical accounts state that Afonso I (reigned 1509-1541) gave crucifixes to clan chiefs and judges in the capital of the Kongo kingdom and throughout the provinces. Such sculptures bestowed on the recipient the power to swear oaths, to punish oath breakers and to judge correctly at trials. This scale of crucifixes may also have been worn as a personal emblem. Spanish crucifixes brought in by Portuguese missionaries are considered the first models that members of the Kongo kingdom saw.

Images of the Kongo

European and American illustrations reflect the history of the Kongo and the nkondi figure with varying approaches. In 1491, a Portuguese expedition was the first to see a king of the Kongo in his glory presiding over a vast country with a distinguished government. That king's conversion to Christianity led to the burning of Kongo art and to the eventual destructive force of the slave trade. In 1904, the fury surrounding a Belgian leader's actions in the Congo inspired artists to depict a nkondi as a protest statement. By the end of the twentieth century, a Kongo aesthetic was being recognized in American yards, graves and on the streets of New York.
"Dieux Nègres," from L'Assiette au beurre, 1904, František Kupka
© 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Looking at Nkondi Through Kongo Eyes

Detail of face, 81.17.836
Each feature of the nkondi has an exact meaning and purpose. Fu Kiau Bunseki, a Kongo scholar, translates many aspects of the nkondi that contradict any notion that this figure is a "fetish."

Who is it for?
"Nkondi is like a diploma given to an nganga, a specialist who deals with social issues. He can be seen as a therapist who is invited to deal with any issue that is a problem in the village. Before they start discussing the matter, he has to put before him his nkondi to assure the village that he is qualified to discuss the mambo. The word mambo became "mumbo jumbo" in the West. Without this object, the community won't accept him as trained or qualified."
Detail of nails and knots, 81.17.836
What are they for?
"The nkondi was truly a document on which contracts were signed. The knots can be tied by an individual or the community. It means someone is willing to make a decision. The nganga will lead a person to a resolution, then he will tie a knot, and then they nail it on the nkondi. From that time on, the person who signs the document has to act upon that contract or that agreement in his life."
Detail of tongue, 81.17.836
Why is the tongue out?
"The Kongo strongly believe that the tongue is one of the most sharp instruments in life. Any word coming from the nganga can destroy or bind the community together. There is a saying, "mambo makela"-words are bullets, they can cure, they can kill. A teacher has to be careful with words. Through words, you can destroy or change the life of a person."
Detail of hand on hip, 81.17.836
Why does Nkondi stand with his hands on his hips?
"In the Kongo, this posture is called pakalala. It is a position that represents something that one cannot contest. That position alone tells you that you have to be careful or a punishment is coming to you. When nganga is working on his medicine or in the process of reconciliation, his body can tell you the decision being taken."
Detail of platform, 81.17.836
What is he standing on?
"The platform represents the kalunga line. We stand on it, above the world of the ancestors who are underground. The healer, or nganga, stands on the ground because all of our medicines come from the ground. For the Kongo, no matter how big or how small the plant is, it draws forth from the ground a specific substance."


Exhibition HistoryCleveland, Ohio, Cleveland Museum of Art, African Tribal Images: The Katherine White Reswick Collection, July 10 - Sept. 1, 1968 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Oct. 10 - Dec.1, 1968).

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., AAIM, April 21 - July 30, 1974; Frederick Wight Art Gallery, UCLA, Jan. 20 - Mar. 17, 1974

Washington, D.C., National Museum of African Art, The Smithsonian Institution, Praise Poems: The Katherine White Collection, Oct. 31, 1984 - Feb. 25, 1985 (Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art, Apr. 6 - May 19, 1985; Fort Worth, Texas, Kimball Art Museum, Sept. 7 - Nov. 25, 1985; Kansas City, Missouri, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Mar. 8 - Apr. 20, 1986).

San Francisco, California, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, Kongo Power Figures, Nov. 15, 1989 - Jan. 21, 1990

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas, Feb. 17 - Apr. 17, 1994; exhibition organized by the Museum for African Art (New York) February 17, 1994 - April 17, 1994

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke A Back, Feb. 7 - May 19, 2002 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Oct. 2, 2004 - Jan. 2, 2005); Hartford, Connecticut, Wadsworth Atheneum, Feb. 12 - June 19, 2005; Cincinnati, Ohio, Cincinnati Art Museum, Oct. 8, 2005 - Jan. 1, 2006; Nashville, Tennessee, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Jan. 27 - Apr. 30, 2006). Text by Pamela McClusky. No cat. no., p. 144, reproduced pl. 75.
Published ReferencesLeBaron, Michelle; Susan Noyes Platt; Tacoma Art Museum, Loud Bones: The Jewelry of Nancy Worden, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2009, p. 49

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures, London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, p. 63

Mellor, Stephen P., The Exhibition and Conservation of African Objects: Considering the Nontangible, in Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 3-16, ill. p. 6, figs. 5, 6.

Selected Works, Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1991, p. 47

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

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