This unique ancestor effigy from Gabon, decorated with copper and brass strips and plates, represents an ancestor figure (boho-na-bwete). It was originally placed atop a reliquary-basket where the skulls and bones of the distinguished figures in a lineage were kept.
Kota figures are stylized images, often reconstructed in unexpected ways, which arise from the dream-like imagination of initiates and other inspired "fetish priests". They are created to provide a symbolic evocation of notable ancestors, and are normally created in a flat form, with a structure which relinquishes visual reality (despite a few exceptions such as the pieces of the "Masters of the Sebe", which have a skull-like face). Looking at the offered lot one is immediately struck by the thickness of the piece (10 cm) and its high-relief appearance. With its elongated, almond-shaped face, its prominent, pyramidal forehead placed far ahead of the crested coiffure, which is in turn relegated to the background, the offered figure is a work of great compositional originality, particularly when compared to most similar Kota objects from the Upper Ogowe.
The attribution of this type of work to the "Shamaye" Kota, although commonly accepted today, requires some explanation and tempering through elements of ethnographic, historical and geographical information. The region from which this reliquary figure most likely originates proves to be quite complex when reference is made to studies on oral tradition and languages (cf. Perrois, Kota, 2012, p. 49 et p. 59). In the 18th century, this large rainforest area on the right bank of the upper Ogowe (Ngouadi Mountain region, 870 m, and Sebe valley), which is now uninhabited, was the hub of all the migratory movements of the Kota people from north to south and east to west.
The people properly known as Shamaye (Shamayi or Bu-Shamayi people), which have grouped together since the beginning of the 20th century in the northern part of this region, are closely related to the Mahongwe. Mahongwe and Shamaye variants are related and yet very different: the former have a concave, pointed face covered with thin strips of brass and a longitudinal pierced base (Mekambo region); the latter have an almond-shaped face, also decorated with metal strips, a wraparound coiffure without a crest, and a pierced base, which is already transverse in shape (Mounianghi region).
However, within the same linguistic and cultural sphere of ancestor worship, characterized by the preservation of skulls that were periodically honoured with offerings and funerary effigies decorated with copper, there were other related peoples, which have since all but disappeared from the region: the Ndambomo, the Kele, the Bungom, but mostly the Shaké and some Bakota (locally called the "Kota-Kota" to differentiate them from the "Kota", the large group that encompasses them all).
The Shaké people, who were very numerous according to the accounts of the explorers of the time, once inhabited the area that interests us, between Lastoursville and Okondja, all along the "Bakota trail". No funerary effigy was specifically "attributed" to them however, even though it is certain that they existed in all the villages, many of which were still standing in 1880.
It is therefore likely that the effigies, characterized by their remarkable prominent pyramidal forehead with raised "diamond" patterns and elaborate copper plates and strips adornments, were fashioned by these discreet people from the Kota area. As it is certain that they were not created by the "Northern Shamaye" (the characteristic sculptural forms of which are well known), it can therefore be assumed that they originate from the "Southern Shamaye" of the lower Sebe (right bank of the Ogowe) and from the "Shaké people" of the lower Ivindo (left bank). They are divided into several sub-styles, including, in particular, the small figures with "diamond" foreheads and braided coiffures from the Lastoursville region. (cf. Perrois, Kota, 2012, pl. 7 for the example from the Saul and Marsha Stanoff Collection).
This very rare sculpture can be compared with the example formerly in the collection of Charles Ratton (45 cm, now in the Musée Dapper. cf. Perrois, Kota, 2012, pl. 6). While the small transverse crescent-shaped crest adorned with cylindrical oblique pendants (edged with a punctate linear decoration) and the rear carved in high relief with an almond pattern (recalling a stylized "Shamaye" face) both suggest a strong link with the southernmost stylistic variants of the Kota Obamba of the Upper Ogowe region, the diamond forehead and strip decoration of the cheeks reflect the specific variants of the Shamaye and of the Shaké.
It can therefore be surmised that this magnificent funerary effigy, with its rare and remarkable sculptural composition, which is made so expressive by its high relief appearance, is the result of the convergence of several stylistic movements among the Northern Kota. The patina of use on the back and base allow us to suggest that this figure dates to the 19th century.
Commentary by Louis Perrois, September 2012
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