Wood, copper & brass
Collected by Aristide Courtois, before 1938
Formerly in Madeleine Meunier’s collection, before 1964
Anna Demina Collection, Milan
The Kota, inhabiting the northern part of Gabon, between the Ogooué River and its tributary Ivindo, attached a preponderant importance to ancestor worship. So they kept relics of the deceased, most often a few pieces of skull and phalanges embellished with various elements, in baskets or rolled bark surmounted by a geometrical figure of wood, whose diamond-shaped lower part facilitated the fixation in the basket. This wooden sculpture, stylized and symbolic representation of an ancestor whom it honours, was covered with plates (or slats as in the case here) of brass and copper. These reliquary figures were called Mbulu Ngulu (ancestor images) in northern Kota language.
The stylized lozenge body supports a very harmonious oval and concave face, two copper plates form a central cross revealing the triangular nose carved in the wood. The pupils are made of two small metal disks giving great expressiveness to the figure. Thin slats of brass are arranged horizontally on the cheeks and the forehead, the plates of the side panels and the arched crescent are decorated with cross-braces patterns and the two tubular pendants are embellished with former rifle cases. The back of the figure, whose wood is left bare, presents an impressive quadripartite geometric pattern. A very beautiful dark patina attesting the old age of the figure can be seen on the back and the lower part.
This piece can stylistically be related to the reliquary figure currently in the collections of the Quai Branly Museum - Jacques Chirac in Paris (donated to the Ethnographic Museum of Trocadero in 1886 and collected during the Brazza mission, cf fig.1 below). Regarding that piece, Louis Perrois (in Forêts Natales. Arts d’Afrique équatoriale atlantique, musée du quai Branly, 2017, p.111) declares : “ (..) although the precise origin of this reliquary figure has not been recorded, if it is undoubtedly attributable to the Obamba, it can be assumed that it comes from groups in the northern region (around Okondja) where the decorative influence of the Mahongwe and Shamaye, settled there long before Mbede-Obamba came from the Congo, was felt directly.” Moreover, the piece from the Quai Branly museum also presents an exceptional decoration on the reverse.
However, we can also relate our piece - even if the general decoration is less saturated - to the one in the Dapper museum collection (cf fig. 2 below) that probably comes from the Franceville region, which allow us to locate the potential original region of our piece between Okandja and Franceville.