Reliquary Guardian Figure (Primary Title)

Unknown (Artist)

19th–20th century
wood, brass, copper
Gabon, Republic of Congo
Overall: 28 1/4 × 15 1/4 × 3 in. (71.76 × 38.74 × 7.62 cm)

Kota reliquary guardian figures such as this one fulfilled a protective function similar to the Fang guardian statue (at left). The base of this figure was originally lashed to a woven container holding the relics of an important ancestor. Like their Tsogo neighbors, whose doorframe for a Bwiti cult house stands nearby, the Kota follow Bwiti practices to honor and communicate with their ancestors.

The abstract design of this Kota figure is laden with symbolism that reflects the dikenga cosmogram of the neighboring Kongo people. Sheets of copper form a cross on the face, dividing it into quadrants, while the “legs” form a diamond shape. Both of these elements refer to the four daily phases of the sun. The crescent moon above the head indicates nighttime, when it is day n the realm of the ancestors.

Copper and its golden-toned alloy, brass, are preferred to gold in many regions of Africa. As a precious metal, the use of brass on a guardian figure honors the deceased. Like water, it is reflective and evokes the fluid boundary between the living and the dead; its yellow color is the dikenga symbol for midnight, when it is noon in the land of the dead.

From the Robert and Nancy Nooter Collection, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund
The New VMFA: Collecting for the Future, 15 October-4 January 2003.

Washington Collector's Show, Museum of African Art, 1972
Image released via Creative Commons CC-BY-NC

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