Sculptural Element from a Reliquary Ensemble

Kota peoples, Obamba group

Not on view

This symmetrical and highly stylized wooden and metal-adorned sculpture is fully three-dimensional but occupies a relatively shallow spatial plane. Its basic figural components include head, neck, and torso. On the head, radically simplified facial features appear in sculptural relief along a central vertical axis. Two nailed-on bone discs at the center of the face serve as eyes, with a wedge-shaped nose protruding between them. The nose, like the rest of the figure, is carved from wood, and is sheathed in brass in keeping with the rest of the front of the head and neck. A crested coiffure adorns the head in three separate, adjoining fronds that feature curvaceous openwork elements and are covered in brass sheets affixed to the wood with more than thirty hidden nails. Beneath the head and neck, a torso of exposed wood, carved in openwork in an irregular lozenge formation, arguably constitutes the sculpture’s most abstract element.

The figure’s face and head are articulated through an assortment of special materials and interrelated design motifs. Two imported, locally decorated foil-like brass sheets—respectively featuring chevron- and diamond-patterned punchwork above and beneath the nose—define the central axis of the face. The arc-shaped outer edges of the face are then covered with two sets of contiguous brass and copper sheet-wire filaments arranged above and below a horizontal axis at the level of the eyes. These flat filaments, angling upward in the top periphery of the face and downward in the lower periphery, harmonize geometrically with the chevrons and diamonds of the central foil-like sheets. This decorative program is further amplified in the scored diamond patterning on the neck, the debossed design at the center of the crest over the head, the angles of the tresses at the lower edges of the coiffure, and the lozenge-shaped torso. Additional debossed patterns on the coiffure, and braided wires on the face, furnish clear borders that demarcate and embellish these compositional elements.

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. Reliquary sculptures such as this one, whose style scholars have especially characterized by its curved adornments at the top and sides of the head, were among the first Kota reliquary figures to arrive in European collections, and are most generally attributed to the central Kota-speaking group known as the Obamba. 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

Further reading

Chaffin, Alain, and Françoise Chaffin. L'art kota: les figures de reliquaire. Meudon: Chaffin, 1979.

Falgayrettes-Leveau, Christiane, ed. Gabon: Présence des esprits. Paris: Musée Dapper, 2006.

Herbert, Eugenia W. Red Gold of Africa: Copper in Precolonial History and Culture. Madison, Wis.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

LaGamma, Alisa, ed. Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary. New York; New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Yale University Press, 2007.

Perrois, Louis. Le Bwété des Kota-Mahongwe du Gabon: Note sur les figures funéraires des populations du bassin de l'Ivindo. Libreville: ORSTOM, 1969.

———. "L'art Kota-Mahongwe." Arts d'Afrique Noire 20 (Winter 1976): 15-37.

———. Kota. Ancêtres = Ancestors. Paris; New York: Bernard Dulon; Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2011.

———. Kota. Milan: 5 Continents, 2012. Siroto, Leon. "The Face of the Bwiiti." African Arts 1, no. 3 (Spring 1968): 22-27, 86-89, 96.

Sculptural Element from a Reliquary Ensemble, Wood, brass sheets, brass and copper sheet-wire filaments, bone, brass nails, iron nails, Kota peoples, Obamba group

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