guardian figure

Kota people

Currently on View in W304.c9.wall
Image Licensing

These figures represent founding ancestors and in former times were placed as guardians on basketry, bark or fiber containers, which held skulls and other bones of important family ancestors. These reliquaries were sometimes carried about during initiations and other ceremonies. They served as protection against evil forces and assisted in appeals to the spirit world for aid.

Kota figures are carved from a single piece of wood, then covered with sheets and strips of brass and copper. These figures are flat images composed of abstract, geometric forms. The characteristically oval face is bordered by projecting elements, which probably represent hairstyles. The "body” takes the form of a diamond-shaped support.

Kota figures were among the earliest African sculptures to influence European artists about a hundred years ago. Even the work of Pablo Picasso was directly influenced by Kota guardian figures.

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

For the Kota people, this potent and forbidding figure embodied the sanctity of the ancestors, whose spirits protect the living. When it was attached to the top of a basket filled with the bones of deceased family members, the resulting assemblage was known as mbulu ngulu, or “image of the spirit of the dead.” Sculptures such as this one functioned as vehicles for appealing to the ancestors for aid and for protection against evil forces.

Kota carvings represent an especially sophisticated tradition of metal appliqué in African art. These abstracted figures are worked from a single piece of wood, which is then covered with shining sheets and strips of brass and copper that endow them with an intimidating presence. The oval face is edged with projecting elements that probably depict an elaborate hairstyle. The lower body takes the form of a diamond-shaped support; the erosion at the bottom very likely resulted from its being repeatedly placed in a bark or basketry container of ancestor bones—testimony to its usage in Kota life.

Preparatory sketches for Pablo Picasso’s breakthrough 1907 Cubist painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, reveal the direct influence of Kota sculpture.

Object Information

Kota people
creation date
late 19th to early 20th century
wood, copper, brass, iron
15 1/2 x 7 x 4 in.
accession number
credit line
Gift from the Joseph Cantor Collection
Public Domain
African Art

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