In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Eternal Ancestors: the Art of the Central African Reliquary, Alisa LaGamma discusses the present figure: “This representation is so abstract that its reference to the human form is not obviously apparent. Individual passages of the composition are articulated as distinct forms whose elemental character is underscored through contrasting fields of color. Despite the precision devoted to delineating each of these forms, the contours are gentle curves and the composition emphasizes bilateral symmetry. Its focal point is the central lozenge configuration, which has no hard edges. This slightly convex passage is bisected by a broad vertical band with a raised circular ridge spanning its length. That axis subdivides the face into two crescents that mirror one another. Positioned at the outer edges of this midpoint are convex circular eyes pierced by iron pupils. An outer lateral recessed crescent projects beyond either side of the face.”1
“The dialectic created by the dominant vertical band is underscored by the use of two distinct metals - the rich red copper of the band, eyes, and vibrant horizontal flourishes projecting from the upper and lower reaches of the head and the brass applied to the rest of the surface. In regional cosmology and ritual, red refers to the passage from this world to the next as well as to the rising and setting of the sun. Eugenia Herbert suggests that its use in relation to reliquaries served to augment their power by addressing both their associations with worldly wealth and their position of mediation between life and death. While most Kota designs feature variations on a unitary crescent spanning the crown of the head, this interpretation displays two distinct elements that curve outward and resemble horns or wings. The brief cylindrical neck unifies this fantastical head with a crisp openwork lozenge base that echoes the form of the face.”2
A small group of comparable works help to situate this sculpture within the Kota corpus, and confirm its antiquity and archaic status:
The first is a work of great historical importance which is today in the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (inv. no. 71.1884.37.22). Collected on the de Brazza exploration of 1883-85, one of the earliest European forays into Kota lands, it is composed of a vertical diamond face with rounded edges, like the Silver figure, pointed at top and bottom and devoid of facial features aside from circular projecting eyes and a ridge down the center suggesting the bridge of a nose.
The second is the famous and much-discussed work previously in the collections of Helena Rubinstein and William Rubin, which was included in the 1935 exhibition African Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The nearly round central medallion comes to a subtle point at top and bottom, and is divided vertically with a copper band very much like the Silver figure, and is likewise punctuated with bulbous copper eyes.
The third is a work from the collection of the artist Jean Willy Mestach, Brussels, which like the Rubinstein figure bears a rounded central medallion with subtle points at top and bottom; however it differs in that the eyes are made of horizontal crescent shapes.
The fourth was previously in the collection of Jacqueline Loudmer, Paris (sold Christie’s, Paris, June 23, 2016, lot 116). It shares with the present lot and the Mestach figure the feature of “rabbit ears”, but has a more vertical central face, and is unique in this small group in that it has a horizontal band behind the eyes.
While the mixture of shared traits and key differences seen in this charming and mysterious style testifies to the enigma of Kota classification, it is instructive to compare the Silver figures with these examples, each of distinguished status and pedigree. We may never know what art historical progression resulted in the variations observed, but it is clear that in a moment of genius, a small group of Kota artists achieved an astounding breakthrough and created a visual device of special artistic status. Simplicity of design relies on perfection of form; the artist has nowhere to hide. The extraordinarily exemplars of this, the rarest of Kota styles, express a purity and openness which transcend their origins.
1. LaGamma, Eternal Ancestors, 2007, p. 246
2. LaGamma, ibid.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale