Reliquary figure (mbulu ngulu)

African, Kota, Obamba peoples, Gabon
Late 19th to early 20th century
Artist Unidentified

Object Place: Gabon


Overall: 47 x 16 x 8 cm (18 1/2 x 6 5/16 x 3 1/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Wood, metal

Not On View


Africa and Oceania



Kota reliquary figures were among the first African works to gain admiration in the West. Their anthropomorphic shape, with oversized head and lozenge-shaped upper torso, especially appealed to artists at the beginning of the twentieth century. In their original settings, these figures guarded the bones and other relics of important ancestors, which family groups placed in baskets or wrapped in bundles and kept in small shelters. These potent reliquaries protected the living.
When the Kota peoples converted to Christianity at the end of the nineteenth century, missionaries forced some to relinquish the sculptures; others parted with them voluntarily. Today, these figures rank among the most famous icons of Africa.


2 white labels verso: "70"(handwritten);"92"(printed)


1944, sold by Madeleine Rousseau (b. 1895 - d. 1980), Paris, to Geneviève McMillan (b. 1922 - d. 2008), Paris and Cambridge, MA; 2008, to the Geneviève McMillan and Reba Stewart Foundation, Cambridge; 2009, gift of the Geneviève McMillan and Reba Stewart Foundation to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 17, 2009)

Credit Line

Gift of Geneviève McMillan in memory of Reba Stewart