Nkisikondi — Royal Museum for Central Africa – Tervuren – Belgium

This is one of the striking Nkisi Nkondi sculptures in the RMCA’s permanent exhibition. Nkisi Nkondi, or as they are often called in the West, nail fetishes, are recognizable by the nails, fibres, medicinal substances, shells and fabrics that they have accrued over time. The many nails that make this fetish so impressive indicate that it was an object of great importance.

In the West these figures often aroused suspicion, fascination and disgust. They were seen as bizarre objects and often ended up in cabinets of curiosities.

For the Kongo peoples in the Mayombe region, these objects had magical powers, as they were incarnated by their ancestors. Individuals appealed to these fetishes to rectify cases of misfortune, such as illness, crime or disputes. Through the intermediary of a healer, the victim could charge the Nkondi with hunting down and punishing an evildoer. Great power was attributed to these fetishes.

A selection of these fetishes is on display through January 2011 in Mayombe. Masters of Magic, at Leuven’s M Museum (M Leuven). The exhibition features pieces collected 100 years ago by Scheut missionaries and that are now dispersed among three collections: K.U. Leuven, the Université catholique de Louvain and the RMCA.