Reliquiary with Guardian Figure

Mbumba Bwiti
Masango, Central Gabon
19th century
Wood, brass, copper, iron, natural fibre, clay, heterogeneous materials

25 cm


Colonial French Collection, Lyon
Coll. G. Boyer, Paris, acquired from the above

Galerie Alain Bovis, Paris, 2013, acquired from the above

Ex Private Collection, Paris
Dalton Somaré Gallery, Milan
Anna Demina Collection, Milan


Classic Contemporary Primitive, November 2018, Dalton Somaré Gallery, Milano Cultures, June 2019, Bruxelles
Parcours des Mondes, September 2019, Paris


The people of Central Gabon have traditionally carved Guardian Figures to preserve the memories of their ancestors.
These figures, called among the Masango people mbumba bwiti, take the shape of a stylized head surmounting a long neck and concluded by a lozenge to which the bundle of relics itself is secured.
The Heads of these Guardians are marked by large, arched eyebrows which underline the round eyes (often made with white shells or ivory) with a nail in the centre that acts as a pupil.

We can say that the entire sculpture is centred around the lively presence of the eyes and their vigilant glimpse.
As it is customary for the Guardian Figures of Central Gabon the mbumba bwiti have the face completely covered by metal strips, while the head, modelled after the traditional male Sango hairdo, is covered by a single sheet of non-ferrous metal.
The almost abstract conception of these Heads is reinforced by two geometrical, lateral projections which contribute to the astonishing contemporaneity of these sculptures which, despite the small dimensions, have a monumental presence.
The mbumba bwiti are fixed through the lozenge to a bundle made of clay and natural fiber which is the real casket of the venerated memories of the ancestors (consisting of small bracelets, grains, shells, pieces of objects, copper rings, etc.) and which is the link between the descendent and the sacred founder of the lineage.
Only the elders of the clan were entitled to handle and make offers to the Reliquaries to gain protection and support of the ancestors.
This mbumba bwiti stands out for the exceptional integrity of its conditions (very rarely found in this kind of objects) and for its small size that, together with the very high quality of the sculpture, make it a real jewel.