Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens, Amérindiens, Marseille, Arman & l'art africain, June 23 - October 30, 1996; additional venues:
Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, Paris, December 3, 1996 - February 17, 1997
Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Museum für Völkerkunde, Cologne, March - August 1997
Museum for African Art, New York, October 9, 1997 - April 19, 1998
African Arts, January 1978, Volume XI, Number 2, back cover
Werner Gillon, Collecting African Art, London/New York, 1979/1980, pl. VII
Alain and Françoise Chaffin, L'Art Kota: les figures de reliquaire, Meudon, 1979, p. 204, fig. 104
Dorie Greenspan, "Arman's Sophisticated Taste: from Palette to Palate", Elle, January 1988, p. 136
Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens, Amérindiens, Marseille (ed.), Arman & l'art africain, Marseille, 1996, pp. 10 and 111, cat. 60
Frank Herreman (ed.), African Faces, African Figures: The Arman Collection, New York, 1997, pp. 10 and 132, cat. 104
A Kota-Ndasa mbulu-ngulu Reliquary Figure, Southern Kota Region, Gabon
Formerly in the collections of Armand Arman, New York, and Morris J. Pinto, New York
In his monumental 1953 work Contribution à l'ethnographie des Kuta I, pastor-ethnographer Efraim Andersson, the great expert on the "Kuta", or "Kota" peoples of equatorial Africa, illustrated a reliquary figure with a convex face, a broad transverse headcrest, and side-coiffures terminating in volutes (341: fig. 37), closely related to the present majestic figure, formerly in the collections of Morris J. Pinto and the artist Armand Arman.
He noted that the related double-sided mbuli-viti had been collected in situ in the 1920s by the pastor Karl Laman for the Svenska Missionförbundets Museum in Stockholm. The same object, with its convex face, is also seen in a photograph taken by The Reverend Jacobsonn before 1912, showing young Kota men wearing bark cloth aprons, carrying traditional weapons, and displaying reliquary figures (cf. Arts d'Afrique noire, No. 69, Spring 1989, p. 37; Archives Svenska Missionsförbundet, Stockholm).
The conception of these two works tends toward a certain graphic naturalism, contrasting with the stylizing impulse of most other Kota variants. Both feature the same convex volume of the fully-modeled face, entirely overlaid with fine copper plates; accentuated by oblique iron bands on the cheeks; an ovoid, projecting forehead interrupted by a broad horizontal band with chased repoussé decoration; hollow eye-sockets around large, almond-shaped eyes, with thick metal eyelids and pupils made of nails; and the face framed by an ample coiffure, with a transverse crest and lateral extensions terminating in volutes. Particularly significant to our study is Andersson's indication that the related work comes from the Mossendjo region of the former French Congo (southwest of present-day Congo-Brazzaville), the epicenter of the missionary activities of Swedish evangelists before the Second World War. It was also in the southern part of the Kota region that The Reverend Efraim Andersson conducted the bulk of his ethnographic surveys from 1935 until the 1950s, amongst the Wumbu, the Ndasa, and the Obamba (see Andersson 1953 and Andersson 1974).
The area within the triangle formed by the towns of Mossendjo, Sibiti, and Zanaga (all in present-day Republic of Congo) was among others populated by Kota groups, namely the Wumbu and the Ndasa. In this context it is worth remembering that the designation "Kota" is only a collective name of convenience, as each cultural group of equatorial Africa referred to by the name "Kota" also bears a more specific name. The Ndasa are culturally and linguistically distant cousins of the Northern Kota, the Mahongwe, the Shamaye, and the Shaké of the Ivindo basin. Already centuries ago, their migratory movement had already brought them from Southern Cameroon to present-day Congo, traversing the whole of eastern Gabon from North to South. Some Ndasa communities, with small populations, remained behind in the region of the Upper Ogooué river in Gabon.
In all Kota groups, the practice of metalworking, in iron and copper, was particularly important in both a social and a religious context. The master of fire and iron was called otuli. The blacksmith and his assistants used a wooden bellows (okumba) with two chambers covered with animal hide and extended with a doubled terracotta nozzle, which kept the forge glowing within an oven of large stones built upon the ground. Frequently the blacksmith was also a wood sculptor: it was he who, apart from making the necessary tools of daily life and weapons, created the reliquary figures for the worship of ancestors. These were fashioned of a panel of wood and carefully decorated with strips of copper, brass and in the region of the Ndasa also iron.
The offered figure, comprising a single face covered with copper plates and strips, the wood on the reverse left without metal covering but demarcated by a simple diamond shape in relief, can be attributed to the type called mbulu-ngulu. Originally it would have been installed atop a reliquary box or basket containing the relics of ancestors of a lineage, namely skulls and other fragments of bone taken from the bodies of the deceased which were regularly venerated. This function of the figures most often caused significant erosion of the wood base in the lower section, as is the case with the offered figure previously in the Arman Collection.
Naturally, some particularly talented artist-blacksmiths earned renown beyond their home villages, sometimes over vast regions. Some names of these bygone Kota artists have remained in the memories of the Gabonese and Congolese people to the present. These names include Sémangoy and Koba, of the Wumbu of the Upper Ogooué region in Gabon; Boulakongo and Tébangoye of the Nzebi and the Obamba; and a sculptor by the name of Léké from a Ndasa village in the Mossendjo region of present day Congo, the creator of two works collected by Efraim Andersson, preserved in the Ethnographic Museum of Gothenburg, Sweden (see Paudrat 1986: 69).
Concerning certain details of the decorations of Southern Kota reliquary figures, Andersson (1974: 134, note 2) noted that the forehead band seen on most mbulu-ngulu and mbulu-viti was a "mark of dignity" for chiefs, notably in the Ndasa region. Women could also wear them, more discreetly, as a sign of mourning after the death of a dignitary.
Let us consider three other major works of the Ndasa sub-style:
A Kota reliquary figure, mbulu-ngulu, Ndasa
Height: 67.9 cm
Private Collection, Los Angeles
Previously in the collection of René Rasmussen, Paris
Published: Chaffin (1979:207, no. 110) and LaGamma (2007: 260, no. 83)
A Janus Kota reliquary figure, mbulu-viti, Ndasa
Height: 56 cm
Laura and James J. Ross Collection, New York
Previously in the collection of Georges de Miré, Paris
Published: LaGamma (2007: 257, no. 81)
A Kota reliquary figure, mbulu-ngulu, Ndasa
Height: 71 cm.
Private Collection, Geneva
Previously in the collections of Jay C. Leff, Uniontown and Merton D. Simpson, New York
Published: Chaffin (1979: 209 , no. 110)
Already at first sight, the similarities in the decoration of these three works and the offered figure suggest that these works were created in the same workshop, if not by the hand of the same master sculptor.
On these four figures, the face is decorated with "tears", rendered with iron bands, folded in relief and crimped obliquely on the cheeks, falling away from the nose. Large eyebrows in relief form a double arch and are highlighted by twin bands of iron and copper, the two metals paired for chromatic effect.
The use of a combination of sheets of red copper and yellow brass, and strips of iron allows for the striking effect of contrasting colors. This decorative scheme is found in particular on the upper perimeter of the transverse crests of the coiffure of these four works, where they form a frieze of triangles, diamonds, and crosses, marked with vertical lines. This pattern is also the mark of the initiates of mwiri, one of the men's associations of the region. The motif is engraved in repoussé in the cases of Figures 1 and 3, as well as the offered figure, or in relief on thin attached plaquettes (small plates) in the case of Figure 2.
Another convergence between Figures 1 and 3, as well as the offered figure, and subtle difference to Figure 2, is the headband. In the case of the group of three figures it is a narrow strip of copper framed by pieces of brass above and below, whereas in the case of Figure 2 the copper band is wider and reaches down to the curved iron eyebrows, without a piece of brass in between.
Another convergence is the shape of the mouth. Slightly open, circular, and with sharp teeth filed to points, the mouth of the Figures 1, 3, and the offered figure is embellished by a cowrie shell attached with resin (on the offered figure, however, the cowrie has been detached). We know that cowries were a very old currency used throughout Africa, and particularly in equatorial Africa. Thus it was a mark of distinction reserved for statues of the great leaders of clans or politically influential lineages. Filing the teeth to points was a decorative mutilation customary among high-ranking initiates of the Sothern Kota.
A sculptural detail sometimes mentioned in association with the work of Ndasa groups, rarely noticed but probably quite significant symbolically, is the shape of the nose. Typically Kota noses are of a tetrahedral volume, with sharp edges, as seen for example in works of the Obamba, Ndumu, and Shamaye. However, here the nose has a flattened tip, with nostrils gaping, giving it a "snub" look, perhaps recalling the emaciated, skeletal nose of an ancestor's skull. This particular detail is found on several other reliquary figures of the Ndasa substyle, which clearly indicates that this form was intentional and not coincidental: cf., a Kota-Ndasa janus mbulu-viti figure, 64 cm (Ader-Tajan, Paris, December 18, 1990 lot 56, collected by Batallion commander Foufé between 1911 and 1914); another Kota mbulu-viti figure, 56.5 cm (Ratton-Hourdé 2003: 59); and a Kota-Ndasa mbulu-ngulu figure, 58 cm, Sibiti region, Congo (ibid.: 56).
Summarizing the above, three figures – Silver Collection, previously Jay C. Leff Collection, and the offered figure – share a series of strong similarities: the repoussé execution of the decorative scheme on the upper perimeter of the transverse crests of the coiffure, the headband across the forehead, the shape of the mouth, the original presence of a cowry shell on the mouth, the detail of the skeletal nose, as well as approximately the same height. These convergences allow us to suggest that all three figures are the work of a single artist.
In comparing the different variants of Kota funerary sculptures, from their 18th/19th century expansion from north to south, we see that expressions of the Ivindo basin and also the Ogooue basin are much more stylized and abstract than those of the Congo region of Mossendjo. Perhaps a certain stylistic influence of the wider cultural environment can be seen developing over the centuries in this area, where cultural groups of diverse origins such as the Punu, the Tsangi, and the Ndzebi, lived side by side and created "white masks" which in all three styles are well-known for their naturalistic tendencies. In the region of the Tsangi, for example, the okuyi mask, with a fully modeled face, bears bands over the forehead and cheeks, recalling the forehead-band of Ndasa dignitaries. In this context it is noteworthy that Efraim Andersson had found such a white mask in the Kota region in the 1930s (Andersson 1953: 347, pl. 3). This discovery, which could be considered simply anecdotal and random, perhaps instead can be attributed to the existence of common initiation associations across these different communities (in which the mwiri association links all of the adult men in a village). This would undoubtedly have favored the exchanging and borrowing of symbolic motifs, and might explain the naturalistic and sometimes "baroque" tendencies of Ndasa reliquary figures. These three cultural traits place the Congolese regions of the Upper Niari and the Louéssé in a wider perspective, and are another indication of the relative "permeability" of styles in the history of African sculpture.
The present mbulu-ngulu reliquary figure, previously in the collections of Morris J. Pinto and Armand Arman, is of great age, dating from the early nineteenth if not the late eighteenth centuries. It is a major work of its genre, representing a rare variant of the Ndasa sub-style, and constitutes one of the most accomplished jewels of Kota statuary.
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