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19th and 20th Century African Arts: Reliquary guardian figure


Reliquary guardian figure (mbulu-ngulu), "Kota," Gabon, 19th or early 20th century. Wood, copper, iron, and brass, 1' 9 1/16" high. 


Across Africa, ancestors are venerated for the continuing aid they are believed to provide for the living, including help in maintiaining the productivity of the earth for bountiful crops. In Cameroon and Gabon, ancestor veneration takes the form of cranial and other other bones gathered in special containers or reliquaries. 

This particular reliquary guardian figure from Gabon, is called "Kota" or mbulu-ngulu.


Human head with hair, a hat or headpiece, tubular neck and hollow, diamond-shaped body or chest. 


Reliquary guardian figure


Stylized body in the form of an open lozenge below a wooden head covered with strips nd sheets of polished copper and brass. The head is simplidied with the hairstyle flattened out laterally above and beside the face. There are geometric ridges, borders and subdivisions that add texture to the forms. The artist used copper alloy over the wood. The copper alloy was reworked sheet brass or copper wire that had been taken from brass basins that originated in Europe and were traded into this area of Aftica in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The lower portion of the image was stuck into a basket or box of ancestral relics. 


The stylized guardian figure protected the relic containers. They insure that no harm befalls the ancestral spirits. Ancestors are venerated in these cultures. People believe that their ancestors help them.