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Reliquary Figure
Kota

Gabon

Metal and wood
Early 20th century

Height: 23 ½ in. (60 cm)

Collected before 1929 by M. Lagarde, French colonial administrator
Ex Ader Picard Tajan, Paris, June 1982, lot 64
Ex collection Loed Van Bussel, Amsterdam
Ex collection Jean-Pierre Jernander, Brussels

Yale University Art Gallery GvR Archive #0025218

Published: PAD – Paris Tribal 2016

Price: sold

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Established in the region of the Upper Ogooué River in Western Gabon, the Kota attach fundamental importance to ancestor worship. The sculptures that they use for worship purposes – in particular the Mbulu-ngulu, the guardians of reliquaries – are imbued with force, mystery and sacredness.
These ritual guardian figures punctuate and animate Kota society. Aside from the role they have related to ancestor worship, they also appear during transmission and justice ceremonies, and for hunting and curing rituals. Originally installed atop circular baskets containing the bones and skulls of important ancestors, Mbulu-ngulu were kept away from the village, in an enclosure whose access was limited to those among the initiated specifically authorized to consult the ancestors.
These sculptures are constructed around a core of wood which is covered with a delicately crafted metal decoration. The power attributed to the sculpture originates in the metal strips or plates that cover it. Among its properties, copper was particularly known for longevity and power.
Effigies of this type, with their heavily abstract stylization, have been an object of admiration since the « discovery » of African art by Westerners at the beginning of the 20th century. Kota figures inspired numerous modern artists, from Pablo Picasso to Paul Klee.
Especially remarkable on this 19th century figure, characteristic of classic Kota art, are the perfect balance of forms and the refinement of the ornamentation. As noted by Louis Perrois, the back of the figure has a most unusual decoration of geometrical motifs, a very rare evocation of the braided i-benda hairdo worn by Kota notables.
Collected before 1929 by Mr. Lagarde, a French colonial administrator in Gabon, this figure in the Obamba style of Upper Ogooué notably belonged to the recently deceased art dealer, Jean-Pierre Jernander from Brussels.