Africa

Kota reliquary mask from Gabon

Q: I am interested in learning more about this Bakota reliquary mask from Gabon. It has two faces like the god Janus. I believe it was made using wood, copper and brass. It measures 16″ H and 6.5″ at its widest. I recently purchased the mask at a NYC thrift store for $45. Thank you for your assistance. Rick, 1676

A: This highly abstract form consists of a wooden sculpture that is almost entirely encased in metalwork. At the center are projecting eyes. In frontal and rear views, the figure’s contours evoke the schematic shape of a leaf with stem. A cylindrical protuberance at the top of the head is wrapped in copper wire, as is the cylindrical shaft of the neck.

These sculptures from West Africa are sometimes referred to as “reliquary guardian figures” for their role as guardians of the precious contents held within. Their function, however, is more complex in the sense that reliquary sculptures have also served as effective agents of ancestral power in communal rites and ritual performances. Such rites and performances are known for remedying social crises and for ensuring success in matters ranging from fertility and health to hunting and trading. Reliquary ensembles also played an essential role in initiation rituals that pertained to the transfer of family history and genealogy.

Beginning in the 1870s, Kota reliquary figures were among the earliest African sculptures to be acquired by European naturalists and explorers. Beginning in the early 20th century, avant-garde artists—including Europeans such as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and Paul Klee drew inspiration from Kota art. You are very lucky to have found an artifact like this at a thrift store. A

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