The devil is in the detail

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Take a good look at this figure. It might look like a harmless chameleon-like sculpture, beautifully carved in black ivory wood, but you better be careful around it, because it is in fact something completely different.

The name of the figure is nailu and it is a small spirit, also known as shetani. Nailu looks like a chameleon but is much livelier in its movements than this reptile. A nailu nimbly rushes around, almost like a galago or bush baby, a small monkey whose cackling scream is but one of the many sounds in the tropical night. Like the galago and chameleon, nailu lives in tree crowns and feed on insects. However, the stench from a dead animal can from time to time lure nailu down on the earth where he feeds on the swarm of maggots in the carrion.

Nfasi Mpagua, who carved the sculpture, did not mention that the small nailu-shetani poses a danger to humans…but you better leave both the chameleon and the nailu be. As Mpagua said “The chameleon could in reality be a shetani.”

Nfasi Mpagua’s father was a wood carver and served when needed as the (witch) doctor of the village. He was the one who had been entrusted with the manufacturing and safekeeping of the magical sculptures of the village, including the awe-inspiring dance mask that was taken out for the most important celebrations.

Objects for ceremonial uses were made of soft, pale wood which is quickly consumed by termites and consequently these objects had to be renewed quite often. The hard, durable black wood, heartwood of the ebony tree, was used by wood carvers only for the sculptures they sold to outsiders, such as the nailu.


The nailu was collected between 1966 and 1970 by the Danish couple Jørn and Else Korn who during these years both worked in Tanzania for a Danish NGO. The nailu is but one of the versions of the shetani sculptures the couple collected among the Makonde people, so this figure might not be the only one to watch out for in this collection.


//Astrid Kieffer-Døssing

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putting thought to things

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