Boho Na Bwete (Reliquary Guardian Figure)


By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Mahongwe sub-group of the Kota ethnic group have the custom of gathering the bones, skulls and other relics of deceased chiefs and important community members (together with magical substances) into woven rattan baskets; it is believed that the skull of a deceased chief holds his power even after his death. Crowning the containers are figural sculptures, made from wood and brass, believed to embody the guardian spirits of family ancestors held within the containers.

These ancestor shrines and guardian figures are known as boho na bwete (or bwiti meaning 'face of the bwete ancestor'; also called mbulu ngulu or mboy among the Kota from the Republic of Congo). It is believed that these shrines allow the living to communicate with ancestors in the spirit realm through offerings made to the bwete shrines. The practice of ancestor worship (also called bwete) ensures the protection and survival of the family group. Ancestors are also prayed to, through their bwete shrines, to help alleviate misfortune or sickness.

The figures are sometimes removed from shrines and used during annual Bwete festivals. When not in used, the figures and baskets of ancestor relics are usually kept in a small chamber at the back of the chief’s residence.

NOTE: It is believed that a large number of bwete figures in the market have been made for the tourist market due to the near eradication by missionaries, of the practice of creating these figures. Mahongwe bwete figures were all collected in the Makotou - Mekambo region in eastern Gabon.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all boho na bwete figures:

  • Made of wood and brass and/or copper
  • Brass sheathing covers a wood frame
  • Height = 25 - 70 cm
  • Human figure highly abstracted to basic form
  • Reliquary figures made of three sections:
    1. Oval face
      • Circular metal or bone eyes
    2. Cylindrical neck
      • Narrow, thin
      • Neck wrapped in brass wire
    3. Openwork base

Regional variations (Mahongwe sub-group):

  1. Oval face
    • Thin, slightly concave face with top projection
    • Cylindrical coiffure at summit
    • Straight lower edge to face
    • Facial features all concentrated at base
    • Beak like nose
    • Nose flanked by pair of bands made of series of wire filaments
    • Filaments extend below eyes and curve out to rim of chin
    • No mouth
    • Broad median band attached from upper rim to bridge of nose
    • Some have patterns on the central panel
    • Small brass / copper strips applied horizontally from central band (some have strips disposed in star pattern, radiating in four diagonal lines from the nose)
    • Copper plates held in place with staples or nails
    • Back of figure completely covered by one or several thin brass plates
      • Dotted or striped pattern arranged in friezes (some feature zig zag motif on back of head)
      • Vertical axis with one to four raised ridges at back of head
  2. Cylindrical neck
    • Positioned at 45 degree angle to face
  3. Openwork base
    • Base is of lozenge form
    • Base is perpendicular to head

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