Gabon or Democratic Republic of Congo; Ambete
Wood, pigment, metal, cowrie shells
H. 32 1/2 in. (82.6 cm)
The Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection, 2002 (2002.456.17)
Pierre Matisse, like his father Henri, acquired works of African art that related to the modernist interest in abstraction of the human form. Striking for its juxtaposition of still and active attitudes, this standing male figure is a receptacle for ancestral relics. The interior of its hollow torso is accessible through the back's removable rectangular panel. While sculptural traditions amplifying the importance of sacred ancestral relics are widespread in this region of Central Africa, they generally consist of figurative sculptures that accompany relic containers or bundles. This example is one of a series of eight related Ambete works collected north of present-day Congo-Brazzaville by Aristide Courtois during the early twentieth century. On this figure, in addition to the use of black to articulate features, broad passages of red and white pigments are thickly applied to the surface. Throughout the region, these colors refer to essential precepts: red to life force, white to social order and unimpeded perception, and black to death and mourning. The use of all three alludes to the work's status as an abstract portrait of distant ancestors and to its role in diagnosis and divination.