Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Kota Reliquary Figure

Catalog Number: E012


23.0" x 11.09" x 2.96"

584.2 mm x 281.9 mm x 75.37 mm

Materials: Bronze
Usage: N/A
Detailed Description of Significance:

The style of this reliquary suggests that it originated among the Kota (Hongwe, Shamaye, and Obamba) and related peoples of Eastern Gabon and the Western Republic of Congo; the local term for such figures is knwon, ngulu, nguru, or bwété. The lozenge shape of this example is common among Kota reliquaries. The red color suggests several forces that enhance this reliquary’s usefulness as a tool to venerate family members who have passed on: Red equates to blood sacrifices, vitality, and the movement from life to afterlife. Also significant is the fact that this reliquary, like many of its counterparts, features metal plating. Metals at this time were trade goods obtained from Europeans. They were expensive among Kota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so the use of metal serves as an indicator of the ritual significance of such figures, the importance of the deceased—as well as the wealth and status of the person who commissioned it. 

As with many Kota reliquaries in foreign collections, only the “head” of this figure has been collected and preserved. However, from French illustrations and photographs of such reliquaries in situ, we know that the original figure would have been slotted into a basket, bark box, or other receptacle (mbulu, musuku, or nsuwu) that held bones, medicines, and other relics of human ancestors. When fitted into its receptacle, the figure would have been visible only from the “shoulders”—the widest points of the lozenge—up, a stance that would have made the figure appear to float, lending it the fearsome aspect of a guardian over the relics below. When French colonials collected such artworks, they generally left the packet of relics behind and only brought the sculpted part abroad. The arrangement worked well for all parties involved, since from the point of view of most Kota who owned such objects, the more important part of the assemblage was the collection of ancestral relics, not the sculpture. Meanwhile, the metal plating of reliquary figures has made them one of the best preserved types of African religious art from the turn of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Kota reliquaries were designed to resemble the ancestral ideal. This figure, like many other Kota examples, has two faces, one on each side of the oval-shaped head. The reason for this Janus-faced form are unknown, but art historians speculate that the arrangement allowed the figure to better perform its duties as guardian over the remains housed beneath it. The eyes are probably the heads of nails.

French explorers, missionaries, and scholars brought reliquaries of this type back to Europe beginning in the late nineteenth century. There, the figures found their way into museums, such as the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) and the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (Trocadéro Ethnography Museum). Parisian museums of the time were often stuffy and disorganized, but they gave European artists a chance to encounter African art firsthand. Indeed, Kota and Fang reliquaries were a major influence on modern artists such as André Derain, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. Divorced from their original cultural context and from the receptacles that held ancestral remains, to European artists, the figures instead represented another manner of visual expression.