Narratives of the 'Fetish'

John Mack

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Kongo figures have provoked more discussion and the attribution of a greater diversity of significance than any other object from Africa in Western museums. In London at present there are examples on display in the Royal Geographical Society, the Wellcome Collections, the British Museum and (until removed recently for a gallery refurbishment) the Science Museum. There they are displayed variously as trophy, as medical object, as ethnography and as magical technology. Other examples are prominent parts of permanent galleries in Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Exeter and elsewhere with a similar range of interpretation. They have also been taken as inspiration by contemporary artists in the Congo itself, by African- American artists (such as Renée Stout) and in Britain by artists such as Grayson Perry and the Chapman Brothers, the supposed purposes of the figures at once indulged and exoticized. They have appeared in New Yorker cartoons. Kongo figures are, thus, suggestive of innumerable tropes, but in no case has their agency been presented as unequivocally aesthetic. Though present in museum displays since the nineteenth century, they have continued to defy easy or singular classification. Originally described as ‘fetishes’, in contemporary language they are ‘power objects’ rather than ‘art objects’. This chapter explores the source of this enduring facility for provocation relating it to the historical trajectory of other tropes – about the ‘primitive’, about the unconscious and so forth. Yet, it will be argued, the object itself with its protruding nails, mirrors, and bundles of substances is so obviously not a finished product that it resists the idea that in a museum collection it is in retirement. As displayed in a museum it is readily imagined to retain its potential and agency in defiance of museum protocols, a perception that makes it ripe for the imaginary.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPost-Specimen Encounters between Art, Science and Curating
EditorsEd Juler , Alistair Robinson
PublisherIntellect Books
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)978-1-7893-8311-9
Publication statusPublished - 8 Oct 2020

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