1900.39.70

Figure carved of wood and painted, studded with iron nails and implements; a 'power figure'. [JC 27/9/2001]

Place details: AFRICA. Congo, Democratic Republic of?. Nganzi Village (mouth of Zaire River). Cultural Group: Kongo? Woyo? Local Name: Nkisi Materials: Wood Plant / Iron Metal / Pigment / Animal Leather Skin / Textile / String / ?. Processes: Carved / Painted / (Nailed) / Woven / ?. Dimensions: Max H = 850 mm - 980 mm (approx); max W = 470 mm (approx); max D = 370 mm (approx) When Collected: By 1900 Acquired: Donated September 1900

KEYWORD: Figure / CLASS: Figure / Religion / ?.

Publications history, trails & websites: Illustrated in black and white as frontispiece to At the Back of the Black Man's Mind, or Notes on the Kingly Office in West Africa , by R. E. Dennett (London: Macmillan, 1906). [CM 3 6 1998]

Illustrated in black and white as figure 23 on page 61 of Primitive Art, by Douglas Fraser (London: Thames and Hudson, 1962). [JC 16 1 1996]

Illustrated in black and white on page 171 of The Illustrated Golden Bough, by Sir James George Frazer (gen. ed. Mary Douglas; abridged and illustrated by Sabine MacCormack), (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1978). Caption reads: 'Nailing Evils. With each nail sickness and pain have been transferred to this fetish in human form from Nganzi village, Kakonga, Africa.' [JC 25 5 1998]

Illustrated in black and white on a plate (with illustrations of 1900.39.12, 1900.39.13, and 1900.39.51) in the plate section following page 174 of A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley, by Katherine Frank (Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986). [JC 20 12 2007]

Described on page 109 of 'Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford Offers a Cultural Cornucopia', by John Reader, in the Smithsonian Magazine (July 1987), pp. 108-117 as follows: 'A squat figure, three feet high but with full-size head and feet, stands near the case of religious effigies, its black wooden body bristling with a good 50 pounds of nails. Large writing on the label declares it a nail fetish. Any wish for further information requires a visitor to kneel, for the label lies at its feet. Smaller writing reveals it was brought from a village near the mouth of the Zaire - formerly the Congo - River by traveller-lecturer Mary Kingsley in the 1890s; each nail represents a villager's malicious wish. The weight of feeling hammered into that passive hunk of wood is enough to give a visitor pause.' [JC 16 1 1996]

Illustrated and discussed in Les Centres de Style, by Raoul Lehuard, Vol. 1 of his Art Bakongo (supplement to Arts d'Afrique Noire, Vol. 55), Arnouville: Arts d'Afrique Noire (1989). Illustrated (detail of head and chest only) on page 16; caption (page 17): 'Détail d'un nkonde Woyo, collecté par R. Dennett au début du siècle. Entré au Pitt Rivers Museum d'Oxford depuis 1906. Hauteur: 90 cm. env.' Illustrated in black and white on page 322. Caption (page 323): 'F 2-1 Art Woyo, statue à fonction magique, nkonde, bois, fers et ajouts divers, patine brune, h. 90 cm env. Nom vernaculaire: mavungu (assiste les chasseurs dans leur expéditions). Recueillie par le R. P. Dennett au tout début du XXé siècle en Cabinda. Déposée au Musée d'Oxford où il figure à l'inventaire de 1906 (PR 70 L 87). Photo du Musée Pitt Rivers, Université d'Oxford.' See also the author's discussion of '"F" Le Style Woyo-Kakongo' on pages 318-325. (NB It is a pity that Lehuard states that it was collected by Dennett, that it did not arrive in Oxford before 1906, and that he gives a negative reference as the accession number.) [JC 21 7 2016]

Illustrated on the cover of Stigma by EMF (originally released on the Capitol label in 1992: B00000D9XE). [JC 16 1 1996; 12 9 2003]

Illustrated in colour on page 27 of The Pitt Rivers Museum: A Souvenir Guide to the Collections, by Julia Cousins (Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, 1993). [JC 16 1 1996]

Illustrated in colour on page 60 of Fetishism: Visualising Power and Desire, edited by Anthony Shelton (London: The South Bank Centre etc., 1995), where it illustrates 'Fetish: Magic Figures in Central Africa', an essay by John Mack. [JC 16 1 1996]

Illustrated in black and white on page 528 of Volume 2 of The Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara, edited by John Middleton (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997), where it illustrates 'Customary Law' (pp. 526-30), a sub-entry by Sally Falk Moore of the entry on 'Law'. The caption reads: 'Nail fetish (Zaire). This three-foot tall figure, called Mavungu, is studded with over fifty pounds of nails, each of which represents an agreement or promise (contract). To break an agreement sealed by one of the nails is to incur sickness, trouble, or even death. COURTESY OF MARY KINGSLEY / PITT RIVERS MUSEUM, OXFORD.' [CW 17 10 97 / JC 12 11 1998]

Illustrated in black and white (full page) on page 44 of 'La gestuelle kôngo', by Robert Farris Thompson, in Le Geste kôngo, Paris: Editions Dapper (2002), pp. 23-129. Caption (same page) reads: 'KÔNGO / WÓYO. CABINDA / ANGOLA / CONGO / RÉPUBLIQUE DÉMOCRATIQUE DU CONGO. Statue, nkisi nkondi. Bois, fer, matières composites, pigments, dont kaolin, et verre. H.: 90 cm. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.' Also listed on page 200: 'KÔNGO / WÓYO. CABINDA / ANGOLA / CONGO / RÉPUBLIQUE DÉMOCRATIQUE DU CONGO. Statue, nkisi nkondi. Bois, fer, matières composites et pigments, dont kaolin, et verre. H.: 90 cm. Ancienne collection: R. P. Dennett (1906 [sic ?]). Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Inv. no. PR 0L87 [sic]. Discussed on page 43: 'Un nkondi du XIX siècle, conservé au Pitt Rivers Museum, à Oxford (p.44), montre également des pupilles en tête d’épingle. Il est hérissé de lames, signes de problèmes (mambu). D’après une source du Nord-Kongo, de miniscules pupilles sugèrent le retrait, loin dans l’autre monde – la meilleure façon de nous défendre. Grâce à cette vision particulière, le nkondi retrouvers un traître ou un meurtriere cachés et les affrontera. Il les jugera de sa main droite levée, tenant une lame (perdue dans ce cas), les doigts repliés et le pouce pointant en l’air. Par ce dernier signe, le nkondi indique qu’une décision est prise entre ciel et terre, une décision "lourde" et grave. Les doigts repliés représentent la terre. Le pouce est dressé vers le ciel. Ce geste annonce à un sorcier: "Maintenant le ciel et la terre sont liés contre toi. Tu es transpercé pa mon arme. Tu es condamné. Tu vas mourir." Plus le nkondi voyage loin dans le monde des défunts, plus ses pupilles rétrécissent, ce qui correspond à l’idée que, lorsque la pupille disparaît complètement, le contact avec les ancêtres est total. Il arrive qu’un nkondi possède des pupilles avec de miniscules points rouges, peints sur des fragments de miroir. La couleur rouge avertit que de graves problèmes vont survenir. Ces pupilles microscopiques nous garantissent que le nkisi va voyager, aussi loin qu’il le faudra, pour dépister et détruire le danger. Au fur et à mesure qu’il pénètre à l’intérieur de son esprit ou de sa vision, ses pupilles se contractent à proportion. (Il est intéressant de noter qu’un informateur, à propos d’une autre figure, a donné l’interprétation inverse: les pupilles sont larges quand les problèmes sont profonds et cachés, et petites quand il s’agit d’examiner les choses de ce monde.)' Roughly translated by Emily Stokes-Rees as: 'A Nkondi from the 19th century, conserved at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (p.44), is displayed with equally sized, pin point pupils. It is bristling with shards of metal, representing problems (mambu). According to a source from North Congo, the tiny pupils suggest withdrawl, far into another world – the best way to provide protection. Favouring this particular view, the nkondi will seek out a traitor or a hidden murderer and confront them. He judges them by raising his right hand, holding a shaft of metal (lost in this case), the fingers folded and thumb pointed in the air. For the last sign, the nkondi indicates that a decision is being made between the sky (heaven?) and the earth, a decision that is serious and grave. The folded fingers represent the earth. The thumb is raised toward the sky. This gesture announces to a sorcerer: "Now the sky and the earth are allied against you.’ You are pierced by my weapon. You are condemned. You will die." The further the nkondi travels deep into the world of the dead, the more his pupils shrink, corresponding to the idea that, should the pupils disappear entirely, contact with the ancestors will be complete. Sometimes a nkondi will have pupils with tiny red points, painted on fragments of mirrored glass. The colour red is believed to prevent major problems from recurring. Microscopic pupils guarantee that the nkisi will journey, as far as he has, to detect and destroy danger. Little by little as he enters inside his spirit or his vision, his pupils will contract in proportion. (It is interesting to note that an informant, referring to another figure, gave a contrasting interpretation: the pupils are large when problems are great and secret, and small when he considers the things of the world.)' [JC 14 11 2002]

Illustrated in colour on page 84 of Women of the World: Women Travelers and Explorers (Extraordinary Explorers), by Rececca Stefoff (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). It is featured (along with eight other pieces from the PRM collections) in a special photographic section entitled 'Mary Kingsley's African Trophies' accompanying Stefoff's Chapter 5 'Mary Kingsley: Wandering through West Africa'. The photograph is captioned (same page): 'When she returned to England from her first West African trip, Kingsley brought with her a three-foot-tall statue of an idol that she called Mavungu. Studded with nails and ominously stained with blood, it stood in the front hall of her apartment, where it doubtless startled many a visitor.' NB This is not an idol. It is Mavungu, not just called such by Kingsley. It is not stained with blood, ominously or otherwise. (Copy in RDF: Biographies: Mary Kingsley.) [JC 11 9 2003]

Illustrated in colour in 'Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers - Curating the Exhibition', by Clare Gittings, in Face to Face [National Portrait Gallery magazine], issue 9 (Summer 2004), unpaginated [p. 4]. Gittings writes: 'The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford holds Mary Kingsley's souvenirs from West Africa. Her wonderful metre-high Congolese 'nkisi' or power figure (pictured left), made of wood embedded with nails and metal blades, will be a highlight of the exhibition.' (Copy in RDF.) [JC 23 6 2004]

Illustrated in colour on page 36 of Pitt Rivers Museum: An Introduction, by Julia Cousins (Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 2004). Caption (same page) reads: 'Power-figure, named Mavungu, from Congo, Africa; from the collection of the writer Mary Kingsley. The figure is studded with iron blades and nails, each one of which represents an oath or an invocation to the spirit within the figure to hunt down a witch.' [JC 8 10 2004]

Illustrated in colour in 'Mary Kingsley', which appears on page 206 of 'Into the Heart of Africa', by Simon Wilson Stephens, in The Seventy Great Journeys in History, edited by Robert Hanbury-Tenison (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006), pp. 203-7. Caption (same page) reads: 'Kingsley collected this power figure, or 'nkisi', from the Congo.' [JC 8 8 2011]

Illustrated in colour as Figure 16 on page 105 of ‘The Pitt Rivers Museum Revisited’, by Catherine Elliott Weinberg, in Tribal Art, Vol. 14, no. 3 (no. 56; Summer), pp. 96–105. Caption (on page 104) reads: 'Fig. 15: Power figure, nkisi. Kongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Before 1900. Wood, pigment, metal, fiber, glass. Collected by Miss Mary Kingsley. PRM 1900.39.70. (c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.' [JC 24 9 2010]

This object features in the Museum's audio tour produced in 2010. Transcription as follows: “This sculpture is one of several ‘power figures’ or ‘nkondi’ [min-kondi] in the Museum which come from the Congo basin region, now held in the Museum. It contains a spirit named Mavungu. By tradition, the figure contains sacred medicine in its belly and its magical power could be awoken only by a diviner or priest hammering a piece of metal or an old nail into it. Anthropologists’ interpretations as to how and why nkondi were used have changed over time. Initially it was thought that the bits of metal simply represented one person’s malicious wish against another, but in more recent times it is thought that the nkondi’s main purpose was to maintain civil order. The diviner activated the spirit which then went out and punished those who had caused another’s misfortune, be it through deceit, treachery, theft or even murder. The nkondi figure was also used in this way for swearing oaths and making a binding legal contract. If two parties swore to cooperate, they licked the piece of iron or tied an identifier to it before it went in. So, should they break the vow, the spirit knew which person to bring to account. This is why Mavungu’s right arm is raised in judgement. Each of the hundreds of bits of metal protruding from this figure, together weighing more than 20 kilos, represents a different person’s agreement or oath.” AUDIO TOUR DROPDOWN: Mary Kingsley “Mary Kingsley, one of the most famous Victorian lady travellers, collected Mavungu from a village near the mouth of the Congo River in the 1890s as part of her interest in ‘fetish’, a now outdated term for misunderstood religious or social practices. She brought the figure home and kept him in her London home. Kinglsey had spent most of her early life nursing her parents. They died when she was 30, leaving her free to study so she decided to travel to West Africa, despite having barely any experience of life outside London and knowing little or nothing of the people and cultures there. In her best-selling accounts of her travels in West Africa, Kingsley describes nkondi figures and claims to have witnessed the diviner extracting money from individuals to draw a nail out in order to stop its adverse effects on them or their families. Kingsley died prematurely from a fever in South Africa, aged just 38. She had already donated material to the British Museum but she also bequeathed some 80 objects to her brother to give to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Among this collection was Mavungu, who has probably been on display in the Museum ever since.” (Written by Helen Hales) References: Wikipedia: Nkisi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nkisi; Thompson, R. F. and J. Cornet, The Four Moments of the Sun, Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art (1981) p. 38; Birkett, Dea, Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers (exhibition catalogue), London: NPG publications (2004), p. 77; Kingsley, Mary, West African Studies, London: Macmillan (1899), p. 404, 410; Petch, A., ‘Mary Kingsley’ in A. Petch, (ed.), Collectors: collecting for the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum (1996), pp. 28–30.' [HH 26/10/2010]

Subject of a new Introductory Guide entitled "Discover: Mavungu" on the Museum's website and in print version for the Information Point, written and compiled by Christopher Morton, Head of Photography and Manuscript Collections, 2010. Available online at http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/mavungu.html [HH 21/12/11; JC 24 1 2012]

Illustrated in colour and discussed in 'The Strange Life of Mavungu', by Patrick Kennedy, online at http://isismagazine.org.uk/2012/11/the-strange-life-of-mavungu/: 'In one of Oxford’s darker museum cabinets, a wooden figure is frozen in an eternal gasp. Its oversized eyes are painted a pallid white, widening as if trapped in a moment of grotesque revelation. An arm is raised in wrath, and its torso, like an eruption of shrapnel, is violently studded with nails. / “Mavungu” now lives permanently at the Pitt Rivers, but this was not always its home. The statue began life in a 19th century West African hamlet, poised at the mouth of the Congo. It is a nkisi nkondi, a receptacle for a spirit employed by a nganga or shaman. In times of illness or suffering (symptoms of infection by stray spirits), one petitioned a nganga, who – forcing a brutal nail into his nkondi’s flanks –would rouse the latent spirit into life. As an otherworldly predator, the animated nkondi would pursue the source of the malevolent demon through an African spiritual world. This was always an ambiguous form of vigilantism, and its services could be bought to exact personal malice on rivals. One could even have spiteful nails against oneself removed. Every nail that is still left in Mavungu signifies a civil dispute, hoped to be resolved by the spirit within it. / If it could, this mercenary squatting on South Parks Road would tell tales of a cosmopolitan career: travels to the Congolese spirit world, channelling the mystic forces embodied in its consecrated blood clot necklace, an abduction by Portuguese colonists, a brief stint as doorman in the English home of a legendary female explorer, and its present life under the steely gaze of an émigré Canadian totem-pole. The Portuguese government confiscated Mavungu in the 1890s, as part of a calculated act of cultural amputation at the turn of the 20th century. Emasculating the minkondi further by tearing off their blood-amulets, the colonists strategically alienated the Congolese people from their spiritual heritage. It is a small mercy that Mavungu survived unmutilated, despite its objectionable reception by the Pitt Rivers in 1902 as an illustration of “the suppression of the gruesome practices …of the natives of the region”. / Mavungu is a guerrilla spirit, a contractual totem, a Machiavellian tool – or the queasy immortalisation of a thousand shards of malice. The gulf of time and culture separating us from Mavungu’s origins stretch on, but countless nails remain disturbing leitmotifs of human unhappiness and social politics. It’s no surprise that Mavungu is still gasping. / Mavungu lives today on the lower [sic] court of the Pitt Rivers Museum, South Parks Road, within cabinet 6A, (“West African Sculpture”). (See RDF for printout.) [JC 18 4 2013]

Illustrated as figure 4 on page 78 of British Colonial Realism in Africa: Inalienable Objects, Contested Domains (Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture), by Deborah Shapple Spillman (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macillan, 2012). In a discussion of Mary Kingsley's experiences in and writing about Africa, Spillman notes (page 77): 'Still troubled by the memory of objects out of place while attempting to organize into a coherent narrative the notes she returned with to London, the "disgust" and "rage" she experiences belong to both the collector and the writer. Mavungu, the blood-smeared [sic] N'kisi or "power figure" depicted in Figure 4 that adorned the entrance hall of Kingsley's London home, may well have served not only as a memento to her travels but also, because of its association with traditional West African ritual, as defense against the threat of such disorder.' [JC 4 7 2013]

Discussed in 'Franchising minkisi in Loango: Questions of Form and Function', by Wyatt MacGaffey, in Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, nos. 65/66 (2014/2015), pp. 148-57. (Copy in RDF.) MacGaffey writes (pages 150/151): A nkisi that appears to be Mabyala is shown as the frontispiece of Dennett’s book, although he says it is Mavungu. It is now in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. [Note 12. 'Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1900.39.70' ] Once again, a comparison of the nkisi in its present state with an old photograph is informative. It has the [150/151] face, the bald head, the general configuration of nails, and the double mirror. At some point, presumably after the object’s arrival in England, its hand and face were painted blue, its lips bright red, and its legs brown, apparently to make its appearance more grotesque. On the top of the head as it now is, however, we see a large nail and a cylinder or tube stuck in, neither of them visible in the original photograph. The fixing nail is probably authentic, and the cylinder marks the medicinal hole for us. Dennett did not own the Pitt Rivers “Mavungu”; he borrowed it to photograph for his book, just as he attempted, unsuccessfully, to borrow a Mangaaka. After a Portuguese government round-up of minkisi in the early 1890s, “Secretary Illusmo Senr. Josè Chichorro” gave it to the traveller Mary Kingsley, who subsequently gave it to the Pitt Rivers. [Note 13 '13. R. E. Dennett, “The Religion of the Fjort or Fiote,” Journal of the Royal African Society 1, no. 4 (1902): 452–454. Most “collecting” of minkisi, especially the large judicial ones, took place between 1885 and 1910 as part of the colonial “pacification.”'] Dennett says it had lost the trousers of blue baft that it once wore, a garment we have already noted in the Leipzig figure. I believe that he was mistaken in calling this nkisi Mavungu, for reasons that will now appear.’ He also notes (page 152): 'The prominent nail in the skull of the Pitt Rivers Mabyala, misnamed "Mavungu," is there to "fix" the medicines in the cavity...'. [JC 30 6 2016]