Kota reliquary figure (mbulu ngulu), late 19th to early 20th century, Gabon, wood, copper, brass, and bone, 59.69 cm high (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Speakers: Dr. Kathryn Gunsch, Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Dr. Steven Zucker.
(jazz music) - [Steven] We're in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston looking at an object that's known as a Kota. - [Kathryn] This is a Kota reliquary guardian. It would have served as an ornament to a basket holding the relics of a family. - [Steven] Specifically bones of a family member. - [Kathryn] People in this region were slash and burn farmers. They would clear land for planting and after five to seven years, the land would no longer be fertile and the community would move to new farming lands. And for that reason you didn't have access to your ancestor's graves so it made sense to take some small part of beloved family members with you when you moved to a new place. Families who were using these reliquary baskets, like people using reliquaries around the world, felt that that tangible connection to an ancestor helped them connect to that ancestor in prayer across the divide of the living and the dead. - [Steven] But this is not a representation of that person. - [Kathryn] No, this isn't a portrait. It's an idealized representation of a male figure on one side and of a female on the other. - [Steven] And that's very rare. - [Kathryn] A recent estimate says that only 3% of the figures have two sides like this. And we're not entirely sure why some of these reliquary guardians have two sides. - [Steven] All this tremendous variety in these objects. The basic form is distinct, you have a large head which is relatively flat and this wonderful diamond shaped body below it. Then there is just tremendous variety. - [Kathryn] We are seeing more of the body of this reliquary guardian than it's original audience would've because the bottom part, this diamond shaped lozenge would've been sunk into a reliquary basket. - [Steven] And so perhaps only the shoulders, that is the upper members of the diamond would have been visible. - [Kathryn] And that's why you see that the decoration stops fairly abruptly underneath these two rings. - [Steven] I'm really taken by the decorative choices. The male side has a convex forehead whereas the other side, the female, is concave. - [Kathryn] And they have different applications of metal, different decoration as well. - [Steven] On the male side we're seeing large sheets of metal. - [Kathryn] If you look closely, you can see the places where tiny little pieces of metal have been used almost like a staple to hold the metal sheeting onto the wooden support. There is a tiny, subtle one underneath the nose and until you see that staple, you might not even realize that there are two sheets coming together there. This artist is very careful to keep a smooth surface because the shining gleam of the metal was meant to mimic the shining gleam of water which is thought of as the division between the living and the dead. The shining metal is hard to achieve when applying to a convex or concave curve. And so you can that the artist has ensured it stays flat by carefully securing it to the wooden support. - [Steven] And one of the things that I find most attractive about these objects is the way in which the inherent colors of each metal is used to define each form. - [Kathryn] We know that artists working in this tradition thought about the different colors of the metal they were using. So you can see a red strip of copper over each eye as an eyebrow and also coming down the center of the forehead. - [Steven] And then this yellow halo like form around the head itself. - [Kathryn] The new theory about this halo shape is that artists who were flattening and abstracting an image of the face, turned the hairstyle sideways. It's unusual that our Kota reliquary guardian has white eyes and not black iron eyes. Ours were used from a bone from an animal so creating a new color, a white color. Some other guardians had that color combination but most have the yellow, red, and black color combination. When you look at the female side of the figure, we can see a different construction method. We believe that artists worked this either by cutting very thin strips or they hand pulled wire from existing forms which is a difficult process involving drawing the material through successively smaller holes and then they hammered it flat. And if you look at the side of the figure, you can see that the artist has turned that metal and pushed it into the wood support to secure it. - [Steven] One can image that this would afford a maximum use of material which must've been important because metal was precious. - [Kathryn] When you first encounter a reliquary guardian, it seems shining and perhaps even made of metal. But if you look closely, you can see that the artist has uses as a precious material and uses smallest amount to make a maximum impact. So it's a very thin sheet of metal on the top of a wooden support. - [Steven] So here in the United States and in Europe, its taken us a century to catch up with the original audience to understand the sophistication and subtlety of these objects. - [Kathryn] Its taken Europeans and Americans a long time to walk away from the legacy of colonial beliefs about African people and Kota reliquaries in particular. And now we can understand that they're part of a deeply thought religious faith and also absolutely stunning aesthetic objects that were never aiming at the same goals as European and American traditions. - [Steven] And evidence of that kind of Western misunderstanding can be found even in the word Kota. We call these Kota objects but in fact, they were not made by the Kota people, they were made in an area where the Kota people lived but by peoples that surround them. - [Kathryn] We're using the word Kota in our conversation today because if people want to learn more about these, all of the textbooks and the articles and books are about Kota reliquaries. Even though we know, in the scholarly community, that that is a colonial misappropriation of a word. - [Steven] But this is such a good reminder of the baggage that continues to cloud our understanding that comes from the colonial period. - [Kathryn] When these were collected, it was just after people in Gabon had converted to Christianity en masse and rejected the reliquary guardians and the relic bundles underneath them as evidence of converting to their new faith. At that time, colonial officials, enterprising local people, and Christian missionaries collected the reliquary guardians and sold them in Europe. And because of that framework, when they presented them in Europe, they presented them as evidence of a savage or a debased faith. It's important when we think about and look at African art and read earlier testimonies and books to remember the perspective of the people writing them. Usually from a colonizer's perspective and not from an artist or patrons perspective. (jazz music)