Southern Kota Reliquary Figure, Gabon and Peoples Republic of Congo

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Kota Obamba Style Reliquary Figure. Specifications: 60.5 x 27 x 4.5 cm Origin: Gabon and Democratic Republic of Congo (see ethnographic notes below) Medium: Timber Carving, Sheet Brass and Copper Sheeting & Pigments.

The land of the Kota, numbering some 75,000, is situated in the eastern part of Gabon, extending slightly into the People’s Republic of the Congo. The Kota are actually a number of groups of peoples with common cultural traits. Although these peoples share many cultural traits, they are by no means homogeneous.


The rain forests which surround the Kota are farmed with slash and burn techniques, combined with crop rotation. By moving crops from year to year, erosion and soil depletion is avoided. The main crops grown are plantains and manioc.The Kota live in villages comprising two or more clans. Clans in turn comprise several lineages or family groups that trace their descent from a common lineage ancestor.

This is an important point related to their art, for like the Fang, the Kota revere the relics of ancestors. Ancestor worship formed the core of the family group’s religious and social life. At the death of a chief, the initiates would take from the body of the deceased various relics, which were then decorated with metal and rubbed with powders of multiple magical powers.

The Kota have produced large quantity of statues of ancestors with the diamond-shaped lower part called mbulu-ngulu; these rather two-dimensional sculptures are in wood; symbolic metals were applied to the upper part in strips or sheets to add power. Copper in particular was identified with longevity and power. These statues stood guard in cylindrical bark boxes, on baskets or bundles called bwete that contained the skulls and bones of important ancestors. Bound into a packet and lashed to the base of a carved figure, the bones formed a stable base that allowed the image to stand more or less upright.

Thanks to the diversity of the groups, scattered over a vast area, a great variety of different styles of figures has developed, some of them endogenous and some influenced by neighboring styles. Kota figures represent an extremely stylized human body, reduced to shoulders and “arms,” in emptied lozenge shape, surmounted by a large face framed by an ample coiffure with hanging tresses. The face, always oval, may be concave (female), convex (male) or concave-convex, with a forehead in quarter-sphere (also male).

The reliquaries were kept outside the homes, in huts at the edge of the village. Only the initiates of the lineage had access to this sacred place. At the time of initiation in the reliquary cult, the clans would meet to perform communal rituals; each clan’s chief would dance holding the reliquary. Some reliquaries featured a large figure representing the lineage founder along with some smaller figures representing his successors. There are figures with two identical or different faces made on two opposite sides of the flat head. The bwete was called on in time of crisis to combat unseen agents of harm. Its intercession was sought in such vital matters as fertility, success in hunting, and in commercial ventures. A husband could use it to guard against his wife’s infidelity, for it was believed that if he placed pieces of her clothing in the reliquary, an unfaithful wife would be driven mad. Families took their bwete to ceremonies of neighboring villages to strengthen the allied community. The display of the bundles and their shiny, visually riveting figures was accompanied by feasting, dancing, and the making of protective medicines. These bwete were kept for generations, but during the 20th century, when religious beliefs changed, they were abandoned or even destroyed.


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