Kota Reliquary Figure

Kota Reliquary Figure

Whilst at TEFAF in Maastricht I came across this striking 19th century Kota reliquary figure, offered by Entwistle Gallery. Like Christian reliquaries these figures were associated with the worship of venerated human remains – in this instance the bones and other relics of the Kota people’s ancestors. In the Christian tradition reliquary sculptures are best understood as referring directly to the saint in question, as the ornate, anthropomorphic cases often relate closely to particular body parts – with pieces of skull encased in the head of a reliquary bust, or arm bones displayed in a rock crystal ‘arm,’ for example. However, these African reliquaries are not representative of the ancestors themselves, and are better understood as guardian figures, keeping watch over the precious relics. Although reliquary figures are found in many tribal cultures in this part of Western Africa, the Kota ‘mbulu ngulu’ are unique for their combination of wood and hammered metal. This is particularly interesting as the metal was not manufactured locally, but fashioned out of brass and copper pots bought to the region through networks of international trade. Just as Catholics elevate the status of relics through their elaborate cases of rich gold and imported jewels, the Kota people used these exotic materials to enrich their religious art, assimilating these foreign materials into their local traditions.

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