Janus reliquary figure, mbulu-viti, Obamba-Wumbu...

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Janus reliquary figure, mbulu-viti, Obamba-Wumbu...

Janus reliquary figure, mbulu-viti, Obamba-Wumbu group, Kota,
Haut-Ogooué, eastern Gabon,
Atlantic equatorial Africa
Wooden core, brass and iron plates and strips
Late 19th - early 20th century
H. 67 cm - W. 43.3 cm - D. 13 cm
Bifacial reliquary figure, mbulu-viti, Obamba-Wumbu group, Kota, Upper-Ogooué, Oriental Gabon, Atlantic Equatorial Africa
Wood, brass plates and slides
H. 26 2/5 in
Provenance:
- Collected at the village Masango, Haut-Ogooué, around 1962, by Dr Jean-Claude Andrault
- Former Ruhard collection, Paris (1975).
Publication:
- Fondation Dapper, La voie des ancêtres, 1986, catalogue, p. 44 (ill. no. 44).
- Marceau Rivière, Les chefs-d'œuvre africains dans les collections françaises, Editions Philbi, Paris, 1975, p. 132 (Collection Ruhard, Paris)
According to surveys by the Swedish missionary Efraïm Andersson among the Kota of the former French Congo, around 1935, two-faced reliquary figures are both older and socially more important than one-faced figures (Andersson, 1953, p. 342) in several of the "Kota" groups, the Obamba as well as the Wumbu and the Ndasa. Their great ritual value would have led to their rarity in western collections, since these ancestor figures, called mbulu-viti, have always been difficult to observe in the field, let alone to purchase. Although specialists estimate the number of "Kota" reliquary figures reported in Western collections since the end of the nineteenth century to be around five thousand, it is noted that the two-sided figures identified and published constitute a series of references of only a few dozen specimens for the Obamba/Ndumu/Wumbu. Although there are most certainly a few more unpublished ones here and there, this amounts to a tiny proportion.
Some informants, not only from Rev. Andersson in Congo (Andersson, 1974, p.164) but also from myself in eastern Gabon in the 1970s, indicated that the Kota figures with concave faces with lamellae were 'feminine' representations, while the convex figures with protruding foreheads with plates were 'masculine'. The association of two opposing faces on a mbulu-viti, which can therefore reasonably be identified as faces of different sexes, male on the side of the rounded forehead and female on the concave side, corresponds to the primordial duality comprising man and woman, the same duality that is evoked in mythical tales and stories. This is not a portrait of a "couple", but rather a visual message that reminds the insiders of kinship (clans and lineages) of the fundamental balance in society, valid in the living as well as in the dead, between the man who hunts and makes war and the woman who gives birth to children and prepares food, each with complementary and necessary functions. While the male ancestors are notables, dignitaries of the clans, once valiant hunters and warlords, the female ancestors are of almost equal spiritual importance as "mothers" who not only transmitted life and enabled descendants to be born, but also contributed to the economic survival of the groups. The two-sided mbulu-viti figure, sometimes also called mboy, thus brings together in a few characteristic signs and volumes, the essence of the power and vitality of the ancestors, in its strictly complementary and here combined, masculine and feminine aspects.
The mbulu-viti figure discovered by Dr. Andrault, is one of the rare sculptures that has been used whose sculptor's name is known. The latter, named Semangoy, was originally from Wumbu, a village in Zokolunga, a small village near Moanda. At the end of the 19th century, Semangoy was the supplier of Chief Poupi, a notable Kota-Obamba. This sculpture is in his hand, with a graphic signature on the crest, in the shape of a crescent with the ends decorated with balls. This clearly recognizable mark has been found on at least six other referenced reliquary figures (cf. The Ancestors' Way, 1986, p. 69).
Morphologically, the curves of the crest and the lateral parts of the headdress around the oval-shaped faces are in perfect harmony. The male side of the effigy has a quarter-spherical forehead with a frieze of cabochons at the top, the horizontal edge of which overhangs a slightly sunken face, marked only by a sharp tetrahedral nose, cabochon eyes (with pupils made of milk-gun screws), and a crescent-shaped mouth. Under the eyes, thin strips of iron are scarified marks (they are also found on the reverse side, on the female face) [cf. Perrois, Arts du Gabon, 1979, ill. 191]. The common part of the mbulu-viti consists of a large crescent-shaped crest at the top of the mbulu-viti, extending well beyond each side, with identical decoration on the obverse and reverse. The presumed female face, also oval in shape but with a less severe rendering, is decorated on the forehead with thin hammered and juxtaposed slats, arranged on either side of a wide axial band.
The mbulu-viti reliquary figure discovered by Dr. Andrault is a major work of the funerary art of the Kota of eastern Gabon, both by its very classical Obamba-Wumbu style, both sober in its forms and majestic in its effect, and by the fact that the sculptor is extremely rare.
Louis Perrois
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