Kota reliquary figure
mbulu ngulu
Two Kota-Obama men arrive at a Swedish mission post in French Equitorial
Africa, present-day Congo-Brazzaville, to hand over reliquary figures.
Photographed by the Swedish missionary G.A. Jacobsson, probably in 1917
Reliquaries seen by P.S. de Brazza
"Voyages dans l'Quest african"
Le Tour Du Monde, Paris, 1887
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.
Source: Robin Poynor - A History of Art in AFrica
20" tall x 10" across
Provenance: Dr. Otto Billigs (1910 - 1989) Collection.  
Dr. Billigs was a Psychiatrist, published author and art collector
Through some research, this figure was traced back to have links to a gallery in France, most likely around the time frame of 1950-1960, and
photos of the piece were sent to me that came from the gallery and I am still doing research to trace the origins on this figure.
Below the photos is some additional information on my figure that is interesting
This piece was in the exhibition "Grave Matters - The Art of Memory and Mourning" at the Loveland Art Museum in Colorado (shown above)
My new photo style
Still not perfect, but it's a big improvement
My old photo style
The story behind my Kota figure is interesting, at least to me, and I will give you the short version of the story.

When I bought this figure a few years back, I bought it from a lady back East who didn't really know anything about it. I thought the figure was
interesting, it wasn't as aesthetically appealing as some that I have seen in books and auctions but it was better than a lot of the figures that I
knew to be recent copies on the market. The styles of these figures varied so much and I wanted to buy one so that I could study it and learn
more about them. That led me to the creation of my You Be the Judge page on these figures (linked further down on this page).

When I purchased this figure I asked about it's history, and that is when it became interesting. The lady I bought it from said that she had
acquired possession of a storage unit in New York I believe it was. In this storage unit were many different things, including a group of African
objects that had labels on them "Dr. Otto Billigs Collection". Not knowing anything about them, she brought the objects to Sotheby's in New York
and had Rebecca Perry look at them. The pieces were sorted through and she was told what pieces were good and what pieces weren't, and she
was given some verbal market values on the objects.

I started doing a little research on Dr Otto Billigs and found that he was a psychiatrist who did a lot of research on the art of schizophrenic
patients and he wrote a book called "The Painted message" which is a cross cultural anthropological study of the relationship between creativity
and schizophrenia. The book focuses mainly on the art of New Guinea, but also deals with Tribal art including cultures in Africa. It is an
interesting book and it shows his interest in the art of other cultures.

I found out that Dr Billigs died in the last part of the 20th century and I have been unsuccessful in locating any surviving relatives.

As a part of my research I asked an expert on the Kota mbulu-ngulu figures in Europe about my Kota figure. This person has studied this culture
and looked at many, many different examples of these figures and I was interested to get his thoughts on my figure and his analysis of my figure
is below:

"You asked my opinion about your Kota figure...

There is a lot of figures that more or less follow this
shape (they constitutes the groups 9 and 10 in Chaffin's
classification), but your figure has many unusual features.

- its face is concave: in that kind of figure it almost
never happens. I don't have precise statistics on this, but
this is a  probability as low as 0.2%, that is 1 figure out of 500.
Quite unusual.

- The nose is unusually large.

- The lower part of the "base" has an unusual shape. By the
way, to some point, I'd believe that this part of the statues
is the hands highly abstracted.

- Last but not least the eyes are quite unusual as they
doesn't seems to be glued with resin. Usually, even when they are
"nailed", the eyes cover some sort of resin (that might, by the way,
not only be a glue, but also a magic charge that might reinforce
the eyes function).

The general sculpture isn't very skillful (sorry for my
Poor english. I don't intend to be offensive). If you look at
the sides, for instance, you can see that the left side isn't symmetric
with the right side.

This, by the way has nothing to do with authenticity: I
know some masterworks to be fakes (with proof) and, on the other
hand, I know very ugly pieces to be authentic.

So far, I can't tell for sure that your figure is authentic
or not. I'd be VERY interested to know if it is (or isn't) because
it belongs to a set of statues that would allow me to make
important progress in deciphering kota statues.

Now for the good news:
Your kota figure appears in the
private reference file of a French galerist (sorry the owner of the
picture wished to stay anonymous). I don't think this figure was
sold at this gallery, though: it was in a folder with various old sales
catalogs, copies of papers illustrations, private photographs
and so on.

Yet, the picture is quite interesting.

a) This is the proof that the eyes have been restored. Don't
worry too much about this: many kota figures has been
modified to a much larger degree. Whoever owned this
object did take care of restoring it. You usually don't
do that with a valueless fake.

b) I don't know where the picture came from, but it doesn't
seem very recent to me. Could easily date back to the 70's.
This doesn't make a proof this figure is very old, but it is
at least the proof that it clearly hasn't been made

c) The other bakota exposed with yours share some
specificity (the "hands" looks more or less the same, for instance,
to such a degree that they might have been sculpted by the
same person, note, by the way that similar sculpture of base
is considered by Chaffin as a good identification criteria
of a sculptor).

As I said, I'd be VERY interested to know more about this
figure and its origin."
Above is the photograph (scaled down considerably) of the group of objects that was mentioned that was in the reference files in a gallery in
France. Unfortunately the owner of the gallery wished to remain anonymous so I can't contact him to find out more about his recollection of
this photograph and the approximate date. It is an old black and white photograph and I really wish that I could find out more about it.

I was also sent a close up old photo of my figure and in the old photograph the eyes were different, they have been restored as it is
mentioned in the analysis above.

So it's still a bit of a mystery to me, but it is an interesting history and maybe someday I will find out more.
You Be the Judge....
Kota mbulu ngulu figures

The experiment...
I posted images of 22 Kota mbulu ngulu figures in a range of different styles and solicited votes and comments from the members of the
African Antiques Group, The Tribal Art Forum and visitors to my website. I posted only pictures, with no additional information on the pieces
and let people judge for themselves what they thought about the pieces and if they thought the pieces were authentic or not.

The figures were posted in two groups - Page 1 had 17 figures and Page 2 had 5 figures.
Page 1 contained a little bit of information about the Kota people and the figures in general.

Click Here to go to Page 1 to see some general information and the 1st 17 figures.

Click Here to go to page 2 to see the remaining 5 figures

After you check out the information and all of the figures click below to go to the RESULTS PAGE
to see the information on each piece as well as the write up I did on this experiment.
Kota mbulu ngulu figures
Figure # 11
Figure # 8
Figure # 1
Figure # 17
Figure # 13
Figure # 7
Figure # 4
Figure # 9
Rand African Art
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