Sculptural Element from a Reliquary Ensemble
- late 19th century (after 1879) – early 20th century
- Gabon or Republic of Congo, Ivindo River region
- Kota peoples, Mahongwe group
- Wood, brass sheet, brass sheet-wire filaments, copper wire, brass nails, iron nails
- H. 20 3/4 x W. 8 1/4 x D. 3 5/8 in. (52.7 x 21 x 9.2 cm)
- Credit Line:
- The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1964
- Accession Number:
This highly abstract form consists of a wooden figural sculpture that is almost entirely encased in metalwork. At the center are projecting eyes defined by brass bosses and a triangular brass nose. In frontal and rear views, the figure’s contours evoke the schematic shape of a leaf with stem. Although three-dimensional, the representation occupies a relatively shallow spatial plane. The sculpture’s upper concave passage can be read as a head and face composed of radically simplified features, with the sculpture’s cylindrical shaft as a neck and its widening base (including an oval-shaped openwork feature not visible in frontal- and rear-view photographs) as the figure’s body. A rectangular brass plate, fastened with six brass nails along a central vertical axis to be made flush with the sculpture’s wood surface, connects the top of the head to a narrow “brow” framing the eyes and nose. Two sets of nine contiguously laid, flattened brass filaments extend downward from the brow along both sides of the nose, and part to form a triangle suggesting the aperture of a mouth. Hundreds more similarly flattened filaments radiate laterally from the centerline of the face and are affixed by their ends. The artist has hammered the filaments’ extremities into grooves in the wooden core, setting them in straight-line formations at the front of the work, and in zigzag patterns at the back. These filament patterns serve as a visual device to enliven the composition. A cylindrical protuberance at the top of the head is wrapped in copper wire, as is the cylindrical shaft of the neck.
Until the middle of the 20th century, extended families in equatorial Africa venerated their most influential ancestors through relics that included the crania of deceased individuals of high distinction. Local elders of the widespread ancestor cult (most widely known as bwiti or bwete among Kota peoples in areas now belonging to Gabon and the Republic of Congo) commissioned figural sculptures that were positioned atop baskets or bark-constructed containers for these precious relics. Within the reliquary ensembles, the figural sculptures were the public face of familial altars. Produced in styles varying according to artist, culture, region, and period, they were affixed to the lid of the reliquary container or lashed to a relic bundle placed inside. In both instances, the reliquary box or basket doubled as a base for the upright figure.
These reliquaries’ figural sculptures are sometimes referred to as “reliquary guardian figures” for their role as guardians of the precious contents held within. Their function, however, is more complex in the sense that reliquary sculptures have also served as effective agents of ancestral power in communal rites and ritual performances. Such rites and performances are known for remedying social crises and for ensuring success in matters ranging from fertility and health to hunting and trading. Reliquary ensembles also played an essential role in initiation rituals that pertained to the transfer of family history and genealogy. Typically housed in the residence of a family or clan leader, reliquary ensembles broadly offered assistance and protection in shielding their communities from harm, following a belief in the responsiveness of venerated ancestors to appeals from their descendants invoked through sacrifices, medicines, and prayers.
Kota sculptors have favored extreme figural stylization verging on abstraction. Their mode of figuration draws attention to the head through disproportionate sizing, and through deliberately allocated concentrations of decorative elements: formal choices that reinforce the significance of the crania contained in the associated reliquary or relic bundle. Materials employed to adorn the head and construct the face—most often brass and copper obtained through trade with Europeans—were historically scarce and therefore even more meaningful and valuable, reflecting the preciousness of the associated relics. Owners of such works continually refreshed the luster of the metal through scrubbing. The metal’s refulgent quality echoed the shimmering surface of an ocean or river in sunlight, and hence was considered conducive to communication with a supernatural realm thought to exist beneath or beyond a body of water.
Beginning in the 1870s, Kota reliquary figures were among the earliest African sculptures to be acquired by European naturalists and explorers—among them Paul Du Chaillu, Alfred Marche, Oscar Lenz, and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. More specifically, sculptures such as this one, whose style scholars have characterized as “foliate” for its resemblance to leaf forms, were among the first Kota reliquary figures to enter European collections, and are generally attributed to Mahongwe and neighboring Kota-speaking artists near the confluence of the Ivindo and Mouniangui rivers in eastern Gabon. Beginning in the early 20th century, avant-garde artists—including Europeans such as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and Paul Klee, Americans such as Alfred Stieglitz, and Africans such as Ernest Mancoba—widely collected and drew inspiration from Kota art.
Joshua I. Cohen, 2017
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