The History and Religion of Congo Statues
By Sophie Higby
For thousands of years, religious images have been a way for people groups to convey a story from their religion while simultaneously incorporating culture and personal perspectives into it. Each religious image is unique, because it is a reflection of the artist’s perspective of religion and the world. Religious images are important to study and reflect on, because they are a piece of history that is tangible. By studying these images, one is able to better understand people’s thoughts and feelings on historical and religious matters. One medium that allows the viewer to explore these perspectives is the statue in the Birmingham Museum of Art described as “Female Power Figure with Nails“. Such power figures are known in the language of the Kongo as nkisi nkondi. This female power figure with nails is a religious image that functions as a vessel to connect with the spirit realm, and a historical image that allows viewers to gaze at a piece of history.
History of Power Figure Statues
Female Power Figure with Nails (nkisi nkondi) originates from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the early 1500s, multiple statues now classified as “power figures” were created by the Kongo people: however, the height of popularity did not occur until the nineteenth century. The statues were created as a vessel for the god Ne Kongo. The god, Ne Kongo, is central to the beliefs of the Kongo people, because it is believed that Ne Kongo brought the first sacred medicine, otherwise known as nkisi, to Earth from Heaven. “A nkisi (plural: minkisi) is loosely translated as a “spirit” yet it is represented as a container of sacred substances which are activated by supernatural forces that can be summoned into the physical world” (Dr. Shawnya Harris). The Power Figure (nkisi nkondi) was created to act as a nkisi. “These minkisi are wooden figures representing a human . . . carved under the divine authority and in consultation with an nganga or spiritual specialist who activates these figures through chants, prayers and the preparation of sacred substances which are aimed at ‘curing’ physical, social or spiritual ailments” (Harris).
Each statue uniquely has nails or pegs driven into it by the ngana (herbalist or spiritual healer) to represent the severity of a situation. If there are pegs driven into the statue, it represents a matter that has been settled, whereas a nail implies a more serious situation such as murder. The purpose of driving objects into the statue is to make it angry, so it begins to take action (AP Art History). The facial expressions in Power Figure(s) are carved to appear menacing in order to intimidate potential enemies (Thomas B. Cole). Located in the stomach of the nkisi nkondi is a piece of glass. It is a form of viewing for spirits from the “other world”, otherwise known as those who have died, to see potential enemies, along with witnessing transactions in the community (Cole). In some Power Figure statues, such as the ones at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “researchers have found snake jaws, insect cocoons and quartz crystals, among many other materials” (The New York Times). However, the reason for the placement of these items is still to be discovered.
Although Power Figure statues were created by the Kongo people to act as a vessel, overtime, the original intent of these statues has been changed. While European Christian missionaries had come in contact with the statues for hundreds of years, in the late nineteenth century many were destroyed, because the Christians believed it to be a symbol of heathenism and sorcery (Harris). In addition, Europeans invaded the Congo, and taking a statue became a sign of victory. (NY Times). A few that survived were brought to the Caribbean and the Americas to be studied. Hollywood made a profit off of the Power Figure statues by warping the original intent. Hollywood created modern day stick-pin Vodou dolls, that often appear in movies, off of the basis of the nkisi nkondi statues. This type of Voodoo is more commonly referred to as Louisiana Voodoo. While Haitian Vodou includes gods and is founded on a darker basis, Louisiana Voodoo is more theatrical and open to anyone.
While most Power Figure statues in the United States were placed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Female Power Figure with Nails is located in Birmingham, Alabama at the Birmingham Museum of Art. Female Power Figure with Nails is a statue that is made up of a combination of wood, textile, metal, and small animal skull. Most Power Figure statues are made up of wood, because it is abundant in the Congo area (AP Art History). The statue was originally created by the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the Birmingham Museum was able to purchase it through the donors: the Junior Patrons, the Committee for Traditional Arts, Mrs. Bernard S. Steiner, and Museum visitors. Female Power Figure with Nails is 22 x 7 x 7 inches (Birmingham Museum of Art). The statue is smaller, because it is meant to be transportable. The statue has several purposes: it is an enforcer among the Kongo community, brings healing and protection, symbolizes an honor of contracts and agreements, and it serves as a mediator between the earthly and spiritual realms (AP Art History).
There is a main difference between Power Figure [Figure 2] statues in general, and the Female Power Figure with Nails [Figure 1] statue. First, the statue located at the Birmingham Museum of Art is specifically titled Female Power Figure with Nails in contrast to simply Power Figure. The purpose of the Kongo statues being in human form is to represent its function in human affairs. The name “Power Figure” is a generality as statues vary between creators. In most societies in the nineteenth century, women were looked down upon and would never be considered to be a power figure. However, in Kongo society, women are not treated equally to men. Descent is traced through the female line to emphasize the importance of women. Women are also able to obtain leadership roles within the community (AP Art History). By naming the statue Female Power Figure with Nails, it highlights the emphasis placed on women, and tells the viewer a quick overview of what is being shown.
Comparison of Statues
Female Power Figure with Nails [Figure 1] can be compared to Statues of Votive Figures [Figure 3], from the Square Temple at Eshnunna. These statues were created around 2900 B.C.E. in ancient Mesopotamia but have multiple similarities to nkisi nkondi. The Votive Figures were made up of both men and women. The creator would replicate himself to act as a stand-in. “Worshipers would set up images of themselves in a shrine before a larger image of god as part of devotional practice” (AP Art History). In order to be easily portable, the votive figures stand 1 to 3 feet tall. The similarities between the works are evident as both include men and women, and serve the purpose of connecting the physical and spiritual realms, along with being transportable.
Female Power Figure with Nails is an amazing statue that allows viewers to gaze and gain insight into Kongo culture and religion. Female Power Figure with Nails serves several purposes: religiously, the statue serves as a vessel for spirits to peer through and watch transactions in the earthly realm; historically, viewers are able to tangibly learn about Kongo culture and be able to view how the statues were created in the nineteenth century. Female Power Figure with Nails is a significant addition to the Birmingham Museum of Art as it allows visitors to learn about a culture that is non-existent in the United States. Most importantly, Female Power Figure with Nails (nkisi nkondi) is a religious image that provides a way for people groups to convey a story from their religion, while simultaneously incorporating culture and personal perspectives into it.
Female Power Figure with Nails (nkisi nkonde)
Medium: wood, textile, metal, small animal skull
Created: late nineteenth century, Northern Kongo people
“14. Statues of Votive Figures, from the Square Temple at Eshnunna – AP Art History.” Google Sites, sites.google.com/site/adairarthistory/ii-ancient-mediterranean/14-statues-of-votive-figures- from-the-square-temple-at-eshnunna.
“172. Nkisi N’kondi – AP Art History.” Google Sites, sites.google.com/site/adairarthistory/vi-africa/172-nkisi-nkondi.
Cole TB. Nkisi Nkondi (Nail Figure): Congolese, Republic of the Congo. https://jamanetwork-com.ezproxy.samford.edu/journals/jama/fullarticle/2484313
“Female Power Figure with Nails (Nkisi Nkonde).” Birmingham Museum of Art, www.artsbma.org/collection/female-power-figure-with-nails-nkisi-nkonde/.
Mcdermon, Daniel. “A Lost African Civilization, and a Sculpture That Tells Its Story.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Sept. 2015, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/10/01/arts/design/kongo-power-figure-mangaaka-met- museum.html.
“Power Figure (Kongo Peoples) (Article).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/africa-apah/central-africa-apah/a/nkisi-n kondi
Sophie Higby ‘23 was a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.
Published November 23, 2020.