Hongwe/Mahongwe reliquary "bwete"

24.5" tall on base
Head is 9" wide
Provenance: ex W. Schneider Collection - US

Old and authentic Hongwe reliquary figures are rare and extremely expensive. They have been produced specifically for the collecting
market for quite some time now. It has been stated in many publications that the authentic production of these types of figures ceased to be
made sometime in the 30's due to the influence of missionaries who repressed the cult that used them, and many of the figures were
burned or thrown into lakes.

Update Oct 2006) - Louis Perrois writes in "African Faces, African Figures - The Arman Collection" - "All such objects disappeared from
the villages between 1940 and 1960. Confiscated by missionaries or destroyed by prophets of new syncretic religions (the "Mademoiselle"
cult, for example), others were sometimes merely hidden in ancient cemeteries, deep in the forest, where, accidentally, some are still being

From what I have read about various cults that were ordered ceased my the missionaries in the early part of the 20th Century, sometimes
these cultures practiced these cults in secret and the production of objects such as this continued either in their traditional form, or in forms
that adopted modern objects that replaced the traditional forms in order to help ensure the secrecy of the continued cult. There is a lot of
literature out there, most of which I don't have in my small library, and there are many different statements made as to when different cults
ceased to exist and what the extent of continued production of traditional objects was, so it is possible that objects that we thought were no
longer traditionally made after a certain point did continue, but the research I have access to is sketchy as far as how long these cults may
have continued in secrecy.

I don't know what to think about the authenticity of this figure, but I am inclined to think that it was a figure specifically made for the
collecting market and not one made for their original intended purpose.

That being said, I think the figure is in excellent style for these types of figures. I have seen several of these figures in museum collections
and high end galleries, and in my opinion this figure compares nicely against any one of them I have seen. I enjoy it in my collection.
The Mahongwe practice an ancestor cult (bwiti or bwete) that was at the center of a system of beliefs and rites and ancestor worship formed
the core of the family group’s religious and social life. Fearful of the deceased the Mahongwe showed particular devotion to relics of
important ancestors of the lineage, guarantors for the protection and survival of the group. At the death of a chief, the initiates would take
from the body of the deceased various relics, which then decorated with metal and rubbed with powders of multiple magical powers. These
relics, augmented by some “charms” and other power substances, were kept in woven rattan baskets upon which were arranged reliquary
figures in wood plated with thin copper or brass strips, plates of wire.  It was believed that the skulls of important men retained their power
after death. Every Mahongwe clan has a reliquary kept in the back of the chief’s hut. These relics were expected to protect and benefit the
families that owned them. 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.  Mahongwe reliquary figures consist of three distinct sections: the oval, concave face with projecting
top knot, the cylindrical neck, and an openwork base. The mouth is missing. The heads of these remarkable abstractions are large and do
not have upper or side pieces. The base is of lozenge form. They are considered dangerous to handle because of their role in former
funeral rites, which have not been practiced for over sixty years.
References: Sources: A History of Art in Africa / Africa - The Art of a Continent / The Tribal Art of Africa / The Dance, Art and Ritual of Africa
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
Examples below for reference purposes
Above is an example in the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY
Property sold for the Benefit of The Mazes S. Schupf Foundation, Inc.
Sotheby's May 6, 1994 Lot 141
A Fine Mahongwe Reliquary Figure, the eroded lenticular body supporting a
neck encircled by copper strips beneath a truncated oval face similarly
covered, with a flat strip above diminutive conical eyes and a narrow nose,
the reverse similar.-, encased, covered with a brass plate running down the
center, and surmounted by a cylindrical cresi tuft wrapped in brass strips;
fine aged patina.
Height 19 in. (48.3 cm.)
J.J. Klejman, New York, 1968.

estimate $50,000-70,000
Ritchies - Toronto
Decorative Arts Auction, Day 2
Auction Date : Jun 8, 2005

Lot 3215 :  Mahongwe Wood And Metal Reliquary Guardian Figure

Gabon. The openwork handle supporting the half oval head with narrow
projecting nose, round eyes and a cylindrical projection atop the head, all
decorated in copper strips and wire. Height 53 cm. (19 in.).

Estimate:$ 3,000 - $ 5,000  
Price Realized:$ 2,400    
Sotheby's - Paris
Art Africain et Océanien,
Auction Date : Jun 15, 2004


haut. 54 cm

Estimate:€ 40,000 - € 50,000
Price Realized:€ 0    


Ancienne collection Ch. Ratton, Paris
Ancienne collection M. Rousseau, Paris
Ancienne collection Arman, New York
Ancienne collection A. Schoeller, Paris

Reproduit dans Le Musée vivant, novembre 1948, numéro spécial 36-37, fig. 9, p. 16

Previously known by the name of Ossyéba, the Mahongwe sub-style of the Kota people, of which they
form the northern branch, was only identified as such by Perrois in 1966.

The carving of this bwete (a name that refers to both the cult of ancestors and their reliquaries figures),
as well as the high position of the nose and eyes, makes it possible, according to the classification
established by L. Perrois (1985, p. 42), to identify it as a "big" bwete, corresponding to the figures of the
founders of the lineage.

The style of this historical work, with its wide brass plaque covering the face, is unique among the
known Mahongwe reliquary figures in private and museum collections.
Christie's - New York
Auction Date : Apr 3, 2003


The concave truncated oval face covered with vertical metal panel at the centre with attached
slender nose and metal disc eyes, diagonal metal strips joining the eyes to the lower border of the
face, each side with horizontal narrow metal strips, the reverse with three vertical ridges at the
center and embossed stippled ornament, the pierced lozenge body with copper and brass binding,
metal binding about the conical projection at the top, the wood with dark glossy patina, white painted
number 8303, on Inagaki base 201/2in. (54.5cm.) high PROVENANCE Frank Crowninshield, New
York Mrs. George W. Crawford EXHIBITION African Negro Art from the Collection of Frank
Crowninshield, The Brooklyn Museum, 1937.

Estimate:$ 60,000 - $ 80,000  
Price Realized:$ 57,360
From a Sotheby's auction:



New York  25,000—35,000 USD  Session 1
15 Nov 02 10:15 AM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   29,875 USD

height 18in. 45.7cm

bwete, the base of fragmentary form, the front arching leg beneath a neck encircled by copper strips and
supporting the leaf-shaped head, with diminutive features, a flat, protruding nose and disc-like eyes and
decorated with brass strips with a knob at the crown; fine aged and encrusted patina.


Charles Ratton, Paris
Marc Riviére, Paris

Cf. Perrois (1979: figures 128 and 140) for related reliquary figures and discussion.
From the book:
African Faces, African Figures: The Arman Collection

Reliquary Figure - Mahongwe, Gabon
Wood, copper; H. 50 cm.
Formerly   in   the  Jacques   Kerchache Collection.
Sale at Sotheby's, London,  30 March 1987.
Le   m'boueti   des   Mahongoue,   Jacques Kerchache 1967.
— C. Roy, J. Kerchache, Le m'boueti des Mahongoue, 1967, p.
26, specimen 23.
- F. Chaffin, L'Art kota, p. 87, no. 10.

From the book:
African Faces, African Figures: The Arman Collection

Reliquary Figure - Mahongwe, Gabon
Wood, copper; H. 37 cm.

The 2 figures above are a couple that I have found that exhibit design in the center metal strip from the top of the head down to the eyes, like my
figure has (It is harder to see in the example on the right, but I believe the design extends to the top of the figure). Most examples found in literature
have a simple and undecorated center plane and simple undecorated metal strips coming out from the center of the head to the outside. I placed
these two examples on this page to show the variations that can be seen on some examples. Some examples have metal placed over the base of
the object as well, but not all, and some of the objects with metal at the base also exhibit patterns in the metal.