Two Reliquary Figures from Eastern Gabon

By Louis Perrois

T he two reliquary figures from the Elliot and Amy Lawrence Collection, New York, exemplify two of the iconic styles of the Kota area of Atlantic Equatorial Africa, one from the northern Kota-Mahongwe region (Eastern Basin, 'Ivindo) and the other from the southern Kota-Ndasa (Haut-Ogooué region). Both were highlighted in the 1960s and 1980s by renowned gallery owners and collectors, the first by Jean Roudillon in Paris and Merton D. Simpson in New York, then Jean-Paul Barbier in Geneva (exhibited in 1979 in the first Barbier-Mueller Museum on Boulevard des Philosophes) and Raoul Lehuard (published in my 1979 book, Arts du Gabon), the second by John J. Klejman in New York in 1962.

Comparing these two ancestral effigies is interesting because it shows that the Kota artist-officiants could express themselves with great freedom of expression while remaining in the register of a strict symbolic abstraction, in connection with an unlimited imagination linked to the dreams and divinatory visions of the nganga priests. To the north, among the Mahongwe, the face of the honored deceased finds itself captured in a two-dimensional sculpture, in flattened relief, whose ogival outlines only keep the eyes in cabochons and the sharp bladed nose as a reminder of anatomical reality. In the south, among the Ndasa, it is the opposite, with a convex face with a large rounded forehead and protruding cheekbones, embellished with large almond-shaped eyes and an open mouth, with a disproportionate shelled headdress both at the top in broad crescent only on the rounded sides, decorated with horizontal scarifications on the forehead and obliquely on the cheeks, represented by added iron strips with a chromatic contrast effect, on the gilded background of the brass plates.

In terms of the quality of artistry of these two works, it is worth noting for the Mahongwe figure the harmony of the shape of the face, with clean lines in ogive, shared by a long axial plate which falls to two thirds of the face. (which energizes the expression of the eyes) and the positioning of the perfectly joined horizontal slats. On the reverse, an elongated rib with two ridges and a top twist represent the i-benda braid worn by notables, or ba-kani, as a sign of their social power.

As for the Ndasa figure, it is his large headdress, with the disproportionate transverse crescent and the very rounded side shells which highlights the oval face with a "sugar loaf" forehead and chubby face. The importance of the character is underlined by the four scarified motifs on the forehead (horizontal alignment of points obtained by "repoussé" with the use of two kinds of metal, in chromatic opposition). The bows of the eyebrows are deeply arched, bordered by an iron band folded into a braid which reinforces the severe effect, and connected to the top of the nose (decorated with an engraved fan pattern).

The eyes in relief, are of almond shape, with studded pupils which accentuate the effect of the gaze. The realistically crafted nose, with a well-marked philtrum, is flanked by swollen cheeks and an open mouth, a symbol of vital breath (comparable to the famous masterpiece once in the collection of Charles Ratton, illustrated in Louis Perrois, Arts du Gabon. Les arts plastiques du bassin de l’Ogooué, Arnouville, 1979, p. 184, fig. 185.

Note the fine workmanship, not only of the thin iron slats obliquely on either side of the nose, as well as the simple engraved decorations around the rim and the trapezoidal pendants below the side hulls. On the reverse, with a surface patinated and eroded by time, there is a symbolic diamond motif, an enigmatic symbol of the passage from death to life in several cultural areas of eastern and central Gabon. The open diamond base has elegantly arched upper segments under the neck decorated with a brass plate finely decorated with a cross-brace pattern.

Spirituality Among the Kota

Kota society, in the northern groups (Mahongwe, Shake) as well as those in the south (Obamba, Ndasa, Wumbu), was structured not only by the complex rules of classificatory kinship, but also by a set of beliefs, linked to the deceased notables, with clan ancestors and forest spirits, who periodically expressed themselves in community rites, more or less secret or public depending on the circumstances. The reliquary figures were the most spectacular expressions of this.

The spiritual representations of the Kota correspond to a complex conception of the human person which distinguishes several vital principles: the carnal and living body (nyutu), but also “the soul-breath” (owumu), “the shadow”, or the “double” (gesisimi) which disappears on death, finally the “ghost” (edzu or nkuku) which sometimes returns from beyond. The Swedish ethnologist and missionary Efraim Andersson described these various notions in his 1974 study of the [“Religious Ethnology of the Kota”?] (Efraim Andersson, Contribution a l’Ethnographie des Kuta II, Uppsala, 1974, p. 82). The vital principle of a physical order is “soul-breath”, which manifests itself through the breathing of living beings. The "double" is immaterial, opposing the visible body, and able to escape through dreams. He can also escape at night, during sleep, a belief that is the basis of the phenomenon of "men-panthers" (that is to say a double who turns into a beast to perform actions revenge or witchcraft, before reintegrating, without his knowledge, the living body of his "owner").

For the Kota, it is the contradictions between the will of the double (which may be a momentarily reincarnated ancestor) and the resistance of the conscious body that would cause psychic disorders or inexplicable illnesses. The ba-nganga, the physician-healers, explain the cases of possession in this way.

The “ghosts” (menkuku) are doubles who could not reintegrate their living bodies at the time of death. They thus remain stuck wandering between two worlds, unable to merge into the cosmos, due to certain contrary circumstances, such as unresolved bad luck or improperly performed funeral rites. This is why ghosts, who have become evil because of their intermediate status between the world of the living and that of the dead, are dangerous. Moreover, the deceased are divided into two groups, the “appeased dead” (the greater part) who become ancestors on whom one can count to help the descendants of their clan, and the “furious dead”, who have remained spirits wandering through the fault of theirs, who will constitute a threat for their descendants.

The worship of the Kota ancestors presents many analogies with that of the other peoples of Gabon (see Louis Perrois, ibid. [Arts du Gabon. Les arts plastiques du bassin de l’Ogooué], p. 40), in particular the conservation of the skulls and bones of important deceased lineages. The ancestors are designated by the terms koko and bwete among the Mahongwe and Shamaye of the north, aku or ongali boke baatu bakala (“the old deceased ancestors”, according to Andersson, ibid., p. 109) among the Obamba and the Ndasa of the south.

The cult of the bwete was the liturgical expression of a whole set of beliefs linked, on the one hand, to the constituent elements of the human person (the soul, the breath, the double, etc. mentioned above) and, on the other hand, to the very nature of the dead, both worthy of honor and necessarily shunned because of their potential dangerousness.

The rites of bwete (Northern Kota), led by experienced and respected ba-nganga (ba-nganga bwete), were related to the occult forces of the beyond, which had to be handled with care. Two material expressions of this secular cult are known to us, the anthropomorphic wooden figurines decorated with copper (boho-na-bwete in the north and mbulu-ngulu in the south) and basket-reliquary baskets (musuku-mwangudu or usuwu-ngulu) which they overcame. The baskets and sometimes the bark boxes contained not only whole skulls or skull caps (often decorated with nails, copper strips or pieces of mirror glued in resin) but also many other human bone fragments down to small pieces. In addition, these receptacles concealed the bones of various animals, plants and other seeds with magical effects (each element having a symbolic meaning in relation to “totemic” beliefs).

The main rituals linked to the ancestors, carried out by the initiated celebrants, were on the one hand the offerings of food and the anointing of the skulls with the red ointment of the sacred (siya), on the other hand and occasionally, the exposure public relics (cf. Chauvet, 1933, 92) with the aim of mobilizing the strength of the ancestors during an important community event (hunting, large collective fishing, epidemic, installation of a new village, difficult palaver, etc.) . Of course, the possession of relics and reliquary figures were recognized marks of social and political power for the chieftains concerned. It can be said that ancestor worship, among the Kota of the north like those of the south of eastern Gabon, was at the very heart of the social and religious life of the villages.

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