Kota ritual practices reconcile two distinct manifestations of the human: first, the tangible remains of the body as bones and skulls, and second, the abstracted form crafted as a reliquary figure. For the purposes of ancestral worship, Kota people would place the vestiges of deceased elders into woven receptacles. They would then attach reliquary figures, such as this one, by their diamond-shaped lozenges to the relics, and the resultant arrangement was believed to protect the wellbeing of family units. In these practices, the aforementioned receptacles of bones were sacred, while the figures themselves were not; the villagers’ selling these figures to Westerners was then, in fact, not contradictory to their religious beliefs. With Christianity’s expansion throughout the Kota region during the colonial era, however, these traditional practices generally came to an abrupt end in the 1930s, and many of these figures were either lost or destroyed.
André Lefèvre, who owned this work in Paris, was best known as a collector of Cubist art. Like many of his contemporaries, he was drawn also to African and Oceanic aesthetics that Western artists, such as Picasso and Léger, had appropriated. The simplified deconstruction with which this Kota reliquary figure depicts the human face and form would have thus appealed to modernist tastes and sensibilities of Lefèvre and the artists whose work he collected.