The object I chose was the Mbulu Ngulu reliquary figure at the National Gallery. This object first caught my attention because I recognized it from an art history class that I took last year, but I could not remember what it was called. When I looked for the label to find its name, I couldn’t find one anywhere. So I got curious.
Mbulu Ngulu means “image of the spirit of the dead.” It is a reliquary figure, which means it is a human (or human-like) figure that is attached to a reliquary holding human remains. Mbulu Ngulu were made by the Kota tribe in Gabon, a country on the west coast of Central Africa. These figures were attached to reliquary baskets called bwete. The bwete would hold the skeletal remains of important ancestors of the tribe. The Mbulu Ngulu were believed to protect the relics from witchcraft and any other unruly forces. They were also believed to embody the spirits of the ancestor to which they were attached and members of the community would come to the remains and ask for help in times of trouble, whether it be war or famine or illness. In really difficult times, multiple Kota communities would bring their reliquaries/Mbulu Ngulu together to be able to have enough power from the ancestors to help and protect them.
Mbulu Ngulu are made of wood and are covered in strips of copper or brass. These certain types of metal are chosen because they are rare and therefore prestigious, making it worthy of these important ancestors. Copper or the copper alloy, brass, was also chosen because of the reddish tint to the metal, because in Kota culture, red is the color of power. The shiny metal also served as a way to deflect any evil forces from the remains. Mbulu Ngulu are usually around 15 to 30 inches tall and always have the concave face and rhombus-shaped body like the one here. The variations between different Mbulu Ngulu usually occur in the elaborate hairstyles around the head or the scarification (strips of metal) on the face.
Mbulu Ngulu were outlawed by French colonizers in 1910, in attempt to stop the religious ceremonies of the Kota so that they could convert them to Christianity. This attempt failed and the ceremonies instead just went underground. Because of this, the Kota started making smaller reliquary figures called Bwiti. This allowed the reliquary bundles to be hidden more easily, as well as transported more secretly.
Created c. 1950, Acquired 2004
Unknown Kota Artist, Gabon
Mbulu Ngulu, Reliquary Figure
Copper, brass, wood backing, pigments
Iziko Sang Study collection 1/2004