Kota Obamba Figure
Late 19th cent.
Wood, copper, alloy
Formerly in Merton Simpson’s collection,
New York, USA
Formerly in Viviane Jutheau, Comtesse de Witt’s collection 1985
Anna Demina Collection, Milan
Galerie Ratton, Gabon, Paris, 2017, pp.22-23
The Kota, inhabiting the 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 Kota language.
This beautiful figure with finely-modelled oval head made of applied brass and copper sheeting in very high relief - with convex-concave volumes and the eyes represented as broad cupules - is related to the southern Kota variants, specifically the Kota Obamba. Its expressiveness is accentuated by the slenderness of the figure and the power of the outlines that contain each volume, the back presenting also a concave vertical lozenge in high relief. The pierced lozenge body naturally weathered from the base to the mid-section, slightly concave shoulders decorated on the front with applied brass plaques ornamented with repoussé lozenge motifs, cylindrical neck sheathed in a brass collar at the front incised with a cross-hatched motif.
This rare reliquary figure can be stylistically related to the corpus which Louis Perrois has attributed to the “Master of the Sébé” (in de Grunne, Mains de maîtres, 2001, p. 141-159). In all likelihood this specific figure is from the same region - the Sébé Valley in eastern Gabon,on the right bank of the Ogooué river - the singular aesthetic impact of this figure reminds us that “despite the constraints of style, sculptors were often able to give their works a 'personality' that the villagers of eastern Gabon appreciated as connoisseurs. Each ritual effigy, crafted according to forms memorized from initiates visions, is an impossible portrait, the fruit of an extremely rich and ambivalent common seam of imagination, based both on the fear of the deceased and the hope for their aid; these works are 'images' of dreams meant more for minds than eyes.”