Reliquary guardian figure (Mbulu-Ngulu)

Gabon, Southern Kota-Obamba
19th–20th Century

24 x 12 3/4 x 4 1/2 inches

The Kota people live in Gabon in west-central Africa along the Ogowe River and in the northwestern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Along with several closely related groups, they are renowned for creating distinctive anthropomorphic spirit figures that watch over reliquary baskets containing the bones and skulls of important ancestors. On special occasions, reliquaries representing different lineages within a single community might be brought together.

The face of this reliquary figure is "dressed" with sheet brass, a precious material that has the power to deflect malevolent forces. It is tacked down with flat, hand-wrought copper nails, and copper lines the upper eyelids. There is no carving or metal on the back. The figure is surrounded by a semi-circular crest that may relate to an ancient style of headdress with a curved lateral form that is slightly flared at the ends to suggest ear ornaments.

Compared to the abstracted features of figures made by related peoples, the oval face of this southern Kota-Obamba sculpture is almost realistic. It has a bulging forehead, lozenge-shaped eyes, and a mouth half open to reveal pointed teeth. Iron wire insets articulate the brow and tear-like lines radiate vertically from the eyes. These insets, which indicate facial scarification, create a penetrating gaze. Delicate repoussé work (metal relief that has been hammered from the back) outlines the form all around the head, and geometric triangles and diamonds ornament the neck and the "arms" of the body. The crescent forms above and on either side of the face may represent a coiffure or headdress.

In the early twentieth century, Kota religious beliefs changed, and these figures, as well as reliquary baskets, were destroyed, sold, or taken to Europe, where their abstract forms became a source of inspiration for modern artists.

Text by Michael W. Conner, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008