Mahongwe Reliquary Guardian Figure


Carved wood, copper
H: 21 ¼ in. – 54 cm
Early 20th century

Ex collection Charles Ratton, Paris before WW2
Ex collection Madeleine Rousseau, Paris
Ex collection Arman, New York
Ex collection André Schoeller, Paris
Ex collection Merton Simpson, New York

Published: Le Musée Vivant #36-37
November 1948, fig. 9, p. 16.

Published: Parcours des Mondes 2015

Price: sold

Afrique Centrale
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For the Mahongwe, a sub-group of the Kota people settled in Eastern Gabon, ancestor worship is of fundamental importance. Among their religious sculptures, the most important are the boho-na-bwete, the guardians of reliquaries (literally, the “Faces of the Bwete”), who are permeated by strength, mystery and sacredness.
Reliquary figures punctuate and animate the Mahongwe social order. In complement to their role in ancestor worship, they also put in an appearance during initiation ceremonies for young men as well as in hunting and curing rituals.
Jacques Kerchache, who collected a large corpus of Mahongwe reliquaries during his travels in Gabon, considered them the most formally accomplished in Kota art.
The Mahongwe exhibition that he organized at his Paris gallery in 1967, and the catalogue he published for it – which became a work of reference – served as a revelation to the public of the fascinating aesthetics and power of evocation of this art.
Constructed around a wooden core, the figure presented here is distinguished by its decoration, constituted of a single copper plate with ornamental motifs hammered into its surface. This style is quite probably unique in the limited corpus of Mahongwe figures listed in private and museum collections.
This historic figure was acquired by Madeleine Rousseau from Charles Ratton, and appeared in a publication as early as 1948, in the revue Le Musée Vivant (#36-37). Over the years, it was acquired by a series of distinguished collectors, in particular the sculptor and connoisseur Arman