My African Fetish in a PC World

One of the most intriguing  objects in that magical realm of Collecting Tribal African Art is the fetish. It is not an easily understood concept; nor should it be, and with the blinders of religious trappings and Freudian analysis it is an easy concept to stay away from.

A fetish is an object of magic and power. So there it is as simple as that, without the pc prefix or the stammering euphemisms. That’s the criteria I’m working with, real or imagined. Everyone wants the edge, in luck, or religion, in money matters, or love. The problem in a Western format is one may take the concept to the extreme and use it in a proactive way to wish bad luck, evil even, on some unsuspecting person. That however is an entirely different concept, since for the most part a fetish was used to prevent, or protect against witchcraft, or to bind a promise or an offering.

The happy truth however is that we are born on a level playing field for the most part. Love, family, and happiness, are not reserved for the wealthy, and healthy. A fetish then becomes a “best effort” against forces seen and unseen, known and unknown. It’s a hedge to deal with the fringe and peripheral elements of life which emanate from “left field” every now and again. The fact that people are drawn to the African tribal fetish is easy to understand. If you want a financial wizard you go to Wall St., and if you want a fetish you naturally go to a place where people have more experience with fetishes.

The most popular fetishes are the Kongo made Nikisi Nkondi, and the Songye made Nikishi fetishes, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Nkisi-Nkondi, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010

“To make a nkisi nkondi a carver begins by sculpting a male human or animal figure with one or more cavities in the abdomen or head; then a ritual expert, a nganga, completes the work by placing ingredients with supernatural powers on the object and in the cavity provided. He activates the figure by breathing into the cavity and immediately seals it off with a mirror. Nails and blades are later driven into the figure either to affirm an oath or to destroy an evil force responsible for an affliction or disruption of the community.”[1]

Bambara (Bamana) Tribe, Boli Fetish/Votive

The Komo society of the Bambara tribe used the Boli as an altar, “a reservoir of their nyama”[2] or sacred power.  “Great amounts of nyama are wielded by the blacksmiths who direct the social, political, religious, and judicial Komo association.”[3] The boli was made of wood in the shape of an animal and the encrusted patina evolved from the additions of libations and sacrificial matter which was thought to activate or spiritually charge the fetish or votive.

My best fetish is an old “mortar and pestle” combination from Tanzania. I believe luck is the oft said mix of opportunity and hard work. Though I’ve labored over the mortar many a time I totally appreciate the entire process and the bigger picture. The sacrifice involved in preparing a meal, real sweat, the family concept, the providers, leaders, and followers.  This pretty mundane fetish clearly isn’t at the high end of the fetish chain but it keeps me grounded, and the well used parts bring back memories and associations that make sense in my little world.


[1] African Art, A Century at the Brooklyn Museum, p.192

[2] A History of Art in Africa, p.122

[3] A History of Art in Arica, p.121

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