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Photo: Paul Macapia

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, 81.17.836,

Now on view at Seattle Art Museum

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

John Mack, 1995

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

Discovering and Converting the King of the Kongo

The arrival of the Portuguese before the king of Kongo in 1491, from Filippo Pigafetta, 1591, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo and of the Surrounding Countries...  

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," from Theodore de Bry, 1603, Petits Voyages  

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

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.

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 eyes, 81.17.836  

Why are they mirrors?
"Mirrors are symbols of written words to tell you what the nganga does-that he is trained to see what goes on in the actual society. He can deal with issues that link the living and the dead. He alone can deal with this, through ceremonies and through medicines. The nganga who carries this nkondi tells the community that he has the knowledge to deal with such situations."

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."

20th Century Kongo Figures

"Dieux Nègres," from L'Assiette au beurre, 1904, František Kupka, Czech, 1871-1957   © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris  

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   Courtesy of Robert Farris Thompson  

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.

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  



Advisor Fu Kiau Bunseki

Fu Kiau K. Bunseki was born in Manianga, Democratic Republic of the Congo. He passed through a missionary-run school system and was eventually initiated into three Kongolese educational institutions: Lemba, Khimba and Kimpasi. He was given permission by his teachers to found a pioneering center that focused on the documentation of Kongolese cosmology and healing practices. After moving to the United States, he began contributing to discussions that trace Lemba's influence as a fundamental part of Palo Mayombe in Cuba, Vodou Petro in Haiti, and Candomble Angola in Brazil. His efforts to unveil aspects of Kongo cosmology have led to many publications. He is currently working on a dictionary of translations of KiKongo. Fu Kiau K. Bunseki has been an active advisor to the Seattle Art Museum on its collection of Kongo art since 2001.

Fu Kiau K. Bunseki  
© Seattle Art Museum

A Kongo Look at Other Art in the Collection

"Here you see a person sitting well posed, well grounded in his life. Left hand on the cheek means someone who is a thinking person in the community. This man is a kind of icon for the community--how a young person should be. A bracelet on his left hand represents that this person is trained to be trusted."

--Fu Kiau K. Bunseki, 2001

Seated Man, n.d., Kongo, 68.54  

"Here you can truly see the impact of colonialization. The clay on the eyes represents the 'double sight' of this man--he has the power to see his own society but he also has the ability to see the white society. He stands in between, and wears clothes to show that. This person will be called mendele lombe--a white/black person. He has given up his state of being fully indigenous and he can't be fully colonial. They were seen as dogs sleeping with wolves in the forest."

--Fu Kiau K. Bunseki, 2001

Standing figure, n.d. Kongo, 81.17.839  

"This man has a mirror, a gun on his knees, and wears the hat of the Force Publique--the army of the colonial power. The nose is elongated to indicate that this is not an African person. These statuettes were made as didactical tools, to teach people what is going on in the society. This is a person we don't trust because he is standing in between. Such men cannot be fully accepted: they are like the bats, birds that seem like animals and yet they fly."

--Fu Kiau K. Bunseki, 2001

Seated Officer, n.d., Kongo, 81.17.835  

"One mother and child shows their bonding, but the necklace can also be seen as a lasso on the neck of the mother, she is in a prison with the child. Once a mother is taking care of a child, she is in a prison, she cannot be aloof from the child, the child cannot be aloof from her. It can represent how much a mother can suffer for a child."

--Fu Kiau K. Bunseki, 2001

Nkondi (figurated medicine) of a woman with child, n.d., Kongo, 68.55  

"A female holding her breasts is used for teaching how females have medicine when they have milk, the milk was used as a cure for conjunctivitis. Females are called dreamers of medicine. A female sees what a male cannot see, especially during childhood."

--Fu Kiau K. Bunseki, 2001

Nkondi (figurated medicine) of a standing woman, n.d., Kongo, 81.17.835  

"A female with her legs out in front is being shown without a platform, as a form of humiliation. Her arm is turned back--there is a situation going on here. A woman is not held like this unless there is humiliation involved, a matter of adultery possibly."

--Fu Kiau K. Bunseki, 2001

Seated female fetish figure, n.d., Kongo, 68.57  

"Dogs are given to people who are trained to be detectives of mambo in the community. A dog has the power to sniff where things are hidden. Detective tools were precursors to what is used in airports today--dogs will 'sniff through' people. The dog statuette will be placed in a circle and if someone knows something that is on his conscience, he will now pass before the dog. It is a symbol of one who is able to detect the unseen."

--Fu Kiau K. Bunseki, 2001

Dog, n.d., Kongo, 81.17.840  

The Kongo Cosmogram (Dikenga)

Fu Kiau Bunseki has described the dikenga as a foundation of Kongo thought. "These four points of demarcation are very important for Kongo people. The circle that is made by the sun's apparent movement is the first geometrical picture given to human beings. We move the way the sun moves. We wake up, we stand up, we become active as leaders in this world, and die and eventually come back. Dying is not an end. Dying for the Kongo is just going on vacation.

The horizon line is the line between the physical and spiritual world. It literally means 'the line of God that cannot be measured.' To stand on the cosmogram is to tie a social knot, bringing people together. It shows the sign of the cross was known to the Kongo before the arrival of Europeans and corresponds to the understanding in their mind of their relationship to their world."

#1 is musoni, yellow. The time of rising, when the creator god is deciding what the child to be born will be.

#2 is kala, black. When the sun rises, living beings are born and enter the physical world.

#3 is tukala, red. This is the age of maturity, profound knowledge and leadership.

#4 is luvemba, gray/white. This is the age of wisdom, of one who is beginning to separate himself from the physical world and is prepared to give the best of his life to his community.

Diagram of dikenga, four moments of the sun, after the writing of Fu Kiau K. Bunseki   Graphic by Paul Mills  


Fu Kiau Bunseki and Clyde Ford talk about the Nkondi