Kota people, Gabon, Reliquary Guardian Figure (mbulu-ngulu)

Kota people, Gabon 

Reliquary Guardian Figure (mbulu-ngulu), 19th – early 20th century 

wood covered with sheet brass and copper 

Purchase, 1936 (4265) 

Kota families and clans believed that bones and personal objects of ancestors have power to protect descendants and bring good fortune. The bones and relics are preserved in bark or basketry bundles, on top of which were attached stylized ancestral representations called mbulu ngulu or bwete, and kept in semidarkness within a small enclosure, away from public view. Kota reduced the human form to a schematic open diamond-shaped body and flattened, oversized head shapes, the surfaces covered with applied sheets and strips of copper or brass. The dramatic use of metal heightened associations with wealth and prosperity, but the shiny, reflective surfaces when polished also were believed to frighten away evil forces. The simple, semi-abstract forms of Kota reliquaries, as well as masks of the Fang (an example is also on view in this case), had a profound impact on the work of avant-garde artists in Paris in the early 20th century.