This Nail Figure served as doctor, judge, and priest. It was carved to capture the power of spirits (minkisi, singular nkisi), which was necessary for healing and adjudicating disputes.
The figure was filled with powerful magical substances (bilongo) by priests (naganga) who tended it in a shrine and made its spirit powers available to individuals. The large cowrie shell held strong medicines that gave the sculpture its power. This nkisi n'kondi would have originally worn a large beard and a straw skirt.
When an agreement was reached, both sides would swear an oath before the nkisi n'kondi and drive iron blades or nails into it to seal the oath. In this way the figure's supernatural powers could be called upon to punish those who broke their oaths.
Artist Kongo, African
  • Nail Figure
Date between 1875 and 1900
Medium Wood with screws, nails, blades, cowrie shell and other materials
Dimensions Overall: 45 1/2 inches × 18 1/2 inches × 15 inches (115.6 × 47 × 38.1 cm)
Credit Line Founders Society Purchase, Eleanor Clay Ford Fund for African Art
Accession Number 76.79
Department Africa, Oceania & Indigenous Americas
On View African: Channeling Powerful Forces, Level 1 (see map)
Formerly in the Collection of:
Museum fur Volkerkunde, Leipzig.
Detroit Collects African Art. Exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts. Detroit, 1977, no. 136 (ill.).

Bulletin of the DIA 56 (April, 1977): 13.

Bulletin of the DIA, no. 4 (1978): 206.

“Family Art Game.” DIA Advertising Supplement, Detroit Free Press, May 20, 1979, 2 (ill.).

Armstrong, R. P. The Powers of Presence. Philadelphia, 1981, fig 2.

100 Masterworks from the Detroit Institute of Arts. New York, 1985, pp. 68-69 (ill.).

Perspectives: Angles on African Art. Exh. cat., Center for African Art. New York, 1987.

African Masterworks In The Detroit Institute of Arts. Washington and London, 1995, cat. no. 58.