Boho Na Bwete (Reliquary Guardian Figure)


By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Kota 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.

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 (Shamaye sub-group):

  1. Oval face
    • No mouth
    • No crescent at top of head
    • Very small / thin side lateral extensions or ‘wings’ frame face (extensions decorated with copper plates)
    • Pendants appear at the bottom of lateral extensions
    • Median ridge present at back of head
    • Type 1:
      • Almond-shaped face (ending in point at top and bottom)
      • Raised, prominent forehead (pyramid shape)
      • Circular eyes sit closely on either side of projection
      • Strips of metal added to upper part of face & forehead
      • Metal strips arranged horizontally behind eyes
    • Type 2:
      • Central vertical projecting strip or ellipse
      • Projection bisects top half of face into two
      • In these cases shape of face similar to Mahongwe figures
      • Copper plate covers section of face just under the nose
  2. Cylindrical neck
    • Narrow and thin
    • Neck wrapped in brass wire
  3. Openwork base
    • 'Diamond' base - usually more rounded and elongated that styles from other sub-groups

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