3642 – Togolese njoo or malformed protective statue

Physical description:
Togolese figure of resin, bone, cowry shell, an iron nail, red cord, a metal padlock, cow dung, blood, and other unidentified materials and fibres.
Museum classification:
Cursing / African Magic and Religion
Size:
10cm x 8cm
Information:

Purchased by donor in Paris in 2005, originally from Togo, West Africa.  Donor suggests item was made in the 1970s.

Description

A carved figure representing a human form bent forward, carrying a basket, standing on its left foot.  The face is carved with placid features.  The right leg is purposefully carved without a foot, to give the impression that the figure is hopping or has no foot.  Around the waist/torso of the item is wrapped in some sort of material (linen?) and on this is suspended a cowry shell on the left, and on the right-hand side a rusted modern padlock.  A small hole is drilled into the base foot (for a modern stand).  The entire figure is caked in dried mud, and appears charred in places.  The object smells of smoke and it seems as if the figure has been coated in mud and baked in a fire.

Use and meaning

Without accurate provenance, it is difficult to determine the exact use of this object.  According to Rosalind I. J. Hackett this could be a nkisi or (two words commonly rendered as 'fetish' or a spiritually charged object).  The minkisi is an image or sculpture that 'receive[s] [its] powers by composition, conjuring, and consecration.  They are composed of earthes [sic], ashes, herbs, and leaves, and of relics of the dead.  They are composed in order to relieve and benefit people, and to make a profit.  They are composed to visit consequences upon thieves, witches, those who steal by sorcery and those who harbour witchcraft powers.'  These objects usually have an aperture in the belly to receive bilongo or medicines, generally speaking materials that have spiritual and abstract qualities relevant to the work in hand.  

Perhaps a more useful term for this object however is njoo, an object carved for apotropaic or protective purposes, often against witchcraft.  These figures are intentionally malformed, usually carved with bent legs, depicting human affliction.  These figures maybe carved by the client but are ritually charged by 'diviners' and their application of 'medicines' (bilongo).

Objects like this are material expressions of key principles common to traditional African belief.  According to Carolyn Morrow Long, the goal of all human endeavour was to achieve balance.  All humans were born pure only to defile themselves by acts that offended community, the natural world, deities, or the ancestors - these acts also disturbed spiritual balance.  All misfortune - physical and mental illness, injuries, bad luck - were the result of strife, greed, aggression, irresponsibility and neglect.  Whilst modern Africans are of course aware of medical or scientific explanations of illness, a spiritual explanation of misfortune is still integral to the healing of imbalance, and traditional African healing utilises medicines derived from plants and animals as well as fumigations, massage, dancing, prayer, sacrificial offerings and so on.  Common to most traditional systems of thought was a concept of a Supreme deity, far removed from human affairs.  Lesser deities, manifest as the spirits of rivers, trees, oceans, lightning etc., had control over human creativity, sexuality and reproduction, warfare, commerce, agriculture, disease, healing, and death.  Integral was the 'divine trickster' who could be persuaded with petitions, gifts and rituals - this being is the governor of chance, ruler of the crossroads, messenger between humans and deities and gatekeeper to the spirit world.

The donor of the object supplied the following interpretation:

"This is a magical object. The package on the fetish's back is called a "Bilongo" and contains many unidentified ingredients and herbs, mixed with blood and resin. The cord binding the figure is (indeed) red as I scratched a bit of matter away years ago to check.  The red cord is in keeping with traditional magical practice.  The cowry shell is the portal to Loa/ God/ the spirit world and the nail, once hammered in, activates the object and intent.

There has been much speculation over the years as the function of this particular fetish. Many interested parties would come to my gallery just to visit him.  One speculation that fits with me the best and my research is that it was a healing object, prescribed for a man with an amputated foot by a voodoo practitioner.

The placement of the bone carried on the back and the additional objects would mirror the burden of the missing appendage and the conscious and unconscious blockages he faces to having a normal and prosperous life. An object prescribed like this would not make a foot grow back but could manage and assist healing and mental and physical pain, and promise to present opportunities for beneficial paid work and status in the future."

References

Rosalind I. J. Hackett, Art and Religion in Africa, (Cassell: London, 1996)

Alisa LaGamma (ed), Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary, (Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York, 2007)

Carolyn Morrow Long, Spiritual Merchants: Religion, Magic, and Commerce, (University of Tennessee: Knoxville, 2001)

 

Resource:
Object
Materials:
Resin, bone, cowry shell, an iron nail, red cord, a metal padlock, cow dung, blood, and other unidentified materials and fibres
Copyright ownership:
MWM, photo copyright Javan Liam