Update: The Kota-Ndassa reliquary figure sold for $975,000.
What you see: A Kota-Ndassa reliquary figure from what is now the Republic of the Congo. It probably dates to the late 19th century, and the artist is unknown. Sotheby’s estimates it at $1 million to $1.5 million.
What is a reliquary figure, and how did the native African people use it? According to Alexander Grogan, head of the African and Oceanic department at Sotheby’s New York, the figure was once attached to a basket that would have held ancestral relics–“bones, mixed with magical material in a kind of bundle.” The whole might have been kept in a sacred grove along with other reliquaries. The figure was separated from its basket at some point in its past, either by a European dealer or a collector who was only interested in the figure, or the basket could have fallen apart without being replaced. “They would have shined the figures with sand and water to keep them bright,” Grogan says. “It [the polishing] was not just to make them look good, it was part of the process of venerating the ancestors.”
The figure stands almost 28 inches tall. Is that typical for a Kota-Ndassa reliquary figure? No. “This is a very large one. It’s really one of the grandest and most fancy examples, and one of the most famous,” he says.
Does the reliquary figure depict a well-known character from the Kota-Ndassa culture? “It’s a representation of an idealized ancestor, an ancestor who’s going to help you,” Grogan says. “It’s a progenitor of your clan who has gone before you. In Kota culture, you venerate it. Ancestor worship is a big part of cultural religious practice in this part of Africa. It [the reliquary] connects to the physical remnants of a real ancestor and forms a conduit between the world of the living and the world of the dead.”
Is the Kota-Ndassa reliquary figure male or female? “Both males and females are represented, but we don’t know much about individuals. At some point [they] would have known who it was,” he says. “Even compared to the rest of the Kota corpus, this reliquary figure is a very fancy object. It represents a very wealthy and powerful individual.”
Is the fan-like object on the top of the figure’s head and the flip-do-like pieces that flank the face all part of a hairstyle? Yes. “In a very, very abstract way, it represents braids coming down the side of the head and a coiffure on the top,” he says.
The Kota-Ndassa reliquary figure is described as “weeping” because of the lines that stream down its face. Are the lines purely decorative, or are they actually meant to make the face look like it’s weeping? “A work of art with such specific little motifs and things has the potential for rich symbolism and meaning, but we don’t know what it depicts,” he says. “The two-colored cheeks and the iron bands on the cheek allow the artist to show off different colors. It’s a tour de force. ‘Weeping’ is a speculative way to describe what the bands mean.”
Do we know why its mouth is depicted as being open? “The teeth shown there are pointed. The Kota would file their teeth to points,” he says, adding that men and women both engaged in the practice. “The figure reflected] the way the Kota people had their teeth. It was a symbol of beauty.”
What are the bean-like white things inside the mouth and on the forehead? They’re cowrie shells. “Each of them is a fancy embellishment–yet another texture, yet another color,” he says. “They give the impression of richness.”
Is the figure entirely made of metal? No. It’s a wooden structure covered with metal plates. “The sculptor creates a sort of wooden carcass, and on top of that are metal plates held in place with little pins,” Grogan says. “The back is naked wood.”
When did Westerners learn about Kota-Ndassa art? Europeans first reached the area in the 1870s or so. Some reliquary figures and other pieces were eventually taken to Paris, where they made an impression on the city’s artists. “Kota sculptures were among the first African sculptures people like Picasso saw in the early 20th century,” he says. “You can imagine Picasso looking at it and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s what I was after.’ There are some Picasso works where you can see Kota motifs.”
How did this figure leave Africa? We don’t know its history prior to the 1960s, when it’s recorded as belonging to collector René Rasmussen. Two more dealers held it before Edwin and Cherie Silver purchased it in 1979. “It was the first major piece the Silvers acquired, and it was at the center of their collection of Kota reliquary figures,” he says. “You could say it was the crown jewel of the Silver collection because they displayed it in the center of the group. It was the most attention-grabbing piece. You’d see it as you walked in. You came through the door into a sunken living room, and there was a grand piano with nine Kota figures on it and a Calder mobile above, looking onto the valley where the Getty Center is now in Los Angeles.”
What else makes this Kota-Ndassa reliquary figure special? “You have a Kota artist stepping way, way above their traditions to become a great world artist,” he says. “The figure is rooted in Kota culture, but the artist achieves something much greater. That’s how I would define a masterpiece.”
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