Death and Rebirth

By Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Gabon; Kota-Obamba artist

Mbulu-Ngulu (reliquary guardian figure)

Wood, brass, copper

H. 43.2 cm (17")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.507

Among several peoples across Africa, but especially among the Fang, Kota, Mahongwe and Punu peoples of Gabon, figures are made to guard the relics of the revered and honored ancestors.  These relics consist of the skulls and long bones (arm and leg bones) of the ancestors.  Only the most important ancestors, those who have accomplished important deeds, are honored in this way.  The first hunter to kill an elephant, the first woman to trade with Europeans, the founder of the village, are worthy of such honor.  The figures that protect the relics may be naturalistic or abstract, but they are not portraits of humans.  They are instead intended to provide supernatural protection against malevolent forces--witchcraft--that might bring harm to the spirits of both living and dead.  The abstract figures covered with metal and made by the Kota people remind us that these are not portraits of the ancestors themselves, but abstract spirit images.