The reliquaries (mbulu-ngulu) of the Kota people of modern day Gabon are amongst the most iconic objects of all classical African art. Join specialist Alex Tweedy as he takes a closer look at the powerful example forthcoming in our inaugural African & Oceanic Art and Antquities auction, taking place in Edinburgh on 21 March.
The making of figures to honour ancestors and allow continued communication with them was once widespread across sub-Saharan Africa. The Kota of the western equatorial forests produced particularly elaborate reliquaries, which reduced the human form to a distinctive flattened shape. Their use of wood and hammered metal is completely unique among African sculptural forms.
The key characteristic of these icons is the oversized head composed of radically simplified features. No two were exactly the same however, the Kota artists worked within some basic rules based on tradition but enjoyed significant freedom to adapt their creation. The figure was accentuated with strips of copper & brass, this use of metal not only heightened associations of wealth and prosperity, its shiny surface was believed to scare off malevolent spirits. Bark containers holding the bones of revered forbears would then be attached to the wooden base. For most of the year, they would be kept in semi-darkness in a sacred enclosure. Only on auspicious days would they be taken out and paraded amongst the community.
It was around the end of the 19th century when the first Kota reliquaries began arriving in Europe. Brought in by missionaries and traders, they became amongst the first sub-Saharan artworks to be displayed in the west. They quickly become highly sought after by collectors – as indeed they are today. The avant-garde artists living in Paris in the early 20th century were particularly fascinated by the radical abstraction of the human form that the reliquaries embodied. Picasso & Giacometti both owned one, with the former’s Nude with raised arms being directly influenced by his example. In the subsequent century, Kota reliquaries have risen to become true icons of world art.
Originating from an old UK collection, the present example is of typical abstract form. Composed of wood covered with copper sheets, the bi-planar facial features are flanked and surmounted by a sickle-shaped coiffure, the long neck following down to an open diamond-shaped body. It embodies the classical Kota characteristic of high emotional impact. The open indented mouth is relatively rare, with most reliquaries having none at all. However, the wide, oversized eyes are highly typical, adding to the powerful protection it offered. We can see an element of the aforementioned improvisation in the decorative crossed metal plates across the mouth. The wavy surface metal has been sand polished to achieve a striking brightness, mirroring the shimmering surface of a river at sunset.
Originally created as a “guardian” for the relics of ancestors, this striking piece now stands apart from its original function, a fine example of the innovative genius of the anonymous Kota artist who crafted it.