An African nail fetish statue
So you bought it, the auction house assistant noted – not asked – as he eyed the solid wood African figure I had straddled across a shopping cart near the door of the auction house. I was waiting for a friend before heading off to place the massive piece of wood into the trunk of my car.
Someone had bought the piece for $1 at another auction, he said, and didn’t pick it up. A second buyer had paid $2 for it, and didn’t come back for it either. Maybe it was the voodoo in it, he said matter-of-factly, reacting as young men do to old men’s silliness.
I wasn’t as worried about the voodoo – if there actually were such a thing in it – as much as the price I could’ve gotten it for. I had paid much much more than a couple bucks for the statue. It was just my luck to be at the auction when at least two other people in the room wanted it, too. Apparently, the right buyers were not around when the piece sold for very little.
Oh well. I still got a great piece of African sculpture at a good price.
When I first saw it stationed on the corner of a glass case in the “good-stuff” room, I was instantly drawn to it. I didn’t want to pay a lot of money for it – I don’t do much of that anymore since I’ve discovered auctions – but I figured I’d love to have it in my home. As I looked at it, the word “spirits” materialized in my head, and the statue certainly looked as if it had been used for its original purpose. I dismissed all of that and decided to go for it.
The piece was about 3 feet tall, with rusty nails and metal blades protruding from its dark, dusty and thick body. It had a gap between its front teeth, a tongue hanging from its mouth, and red, white and blue paint on its face.
According to the auctioneer, the nail fetish had been deaccessioned from an African American museum in Tacoma, WA. With that nod toward provenance, I had to find out more about it.
I found one such museum, the African American Museum in Tacoma, which closed its doors in 2005. It was forced to shut down to raise money to pay the back salary and payroll taxes of one of its founders who had also been its executive director.
She sued in 2003 and the two parties settled, but the museum had to auction off its 70 items – including its African collection – to pay her. A 2005 story in the Seattle Times noted that one of its popular displays was an African village that allowed children to wear clothing made of kente cloth.
The museum was opened in 1993 to collect and preserve the history and culture of African Americans in the Pacific Northwest, and was the first of its kind. (The Northwest African American Museum in Seattle was opened in 2008.) It had been located in at least three spaces during its existence, and had always remained a small operation.
Its exhibits included oil portraits of the state’s African American pioneers that it commissioned in 1994. Among them was activist Nettie J. Craig Asberry, who worked tirelessly for the civil rights of African Americans from the late 1880s into the 20th century. A copy of her Ph.D degree from the University of Kansas (a rarity at that time) hung in the museum, which also held many of the papers and documents from her work in Tacoma.
Did the owner of the nail fetish I bought acquire it through the 2005 Tacoma museum auction and not a deaccession – which occurs when museums whittle down their collections, not sell it all off? This may be as close as I get to having provenance on the statue.
I’m not sure if it was actually used in a ritual or not, but it sure looks authentic.
It is an Nkisi Nkondi (or Nkonde), and these statues are said to have been made in the 19th and early 20th century in the Kongo in central Africa. They are referred to as nail fetishes, a European description that the Victorian and Albert Museum of London called a “condescending misinterpretation of African civilisation.”
The Nkondi are considered the most powerful and aggressive of the Nkisi statues. The mirror on the belly is said to offer a vision into the other world, according to one site, while the British museum site noted that it allowed the statue to see the outer world but concealed the inner world from humans. Inside the belly are “medicines” that are the source of their power.
The statues were used to detect wrongdoing and hunt down the wrongdoers, and to find the cause or cure for an illness. They were also used to punish people who reneged on their word. Their power was unleashed by encouraging them to punish someone, by exploding gunpowder in front of them and by hammering nails into them. Some also were covered in chicken blood as a sacrifice.
The statues would be carved and an nganga or priest would endow them with power in a ceremony at which medicine and other magical materials would be attached to them or placed inside behind the mirror. They were made to be used, not for display, the British museum noted. According to one guide, when the Nkondi has lost its power, it was discarded.
I’m hoping that the one I bought is drained of its magical powers.