Mbumba Bwiti (Reliquary Guardian Bust)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:

The Tsogho (or Mitsogo) of Gabon largely adhere to the spiritual discipline Bwiti, also popular among the forest-dwelling Punu, Fang and Kota. It is recognised as one of the three official religions of Gabon.

Central to this spiritual belief is a spirit known as bwete that acts as a mediator between the divine and those who practice Bwiti. Bwete first reveals itself to believers during initiation ceremonies. Over time, initiates learn the bwete’s sacred language so they can communicate directly with one another. In learning the ways of Bwiti, the Tsogho seek to further their understanding of human nature, our place in the universe and the possibility of spiritual transcendence.

Another key part of the Bwiti religion is mombe — ancestor worship. As part of this process, the Tsogho create wooden busts for placement in a mbumba Bwiti, a sack usually made from antelope skin. These sacks may also be filled with bones, jewellery, grain, shells, and coins. The wooden figures are created in the image of the Tsogho ancestors to act as guardians of the living. They are often used during nocturnal rituals.

Today, these Tsogho half-figures are incredibly rare and much coveted.

Distinguishing Features

  • Prominent ears with wide helices
  • Large, rounded head
  • Convex forehead
  • Strong, large, arching brows
  • Metal attachments often serve as eyes
    • Eyes occasionally inlaid with pupils of varying colour
  • Vertical band of black paint or metal bisects forehead
  • Small, flat, and triangular nose
  • Oval, half-open mouth
  • Columnar neck
  • Rounded shoulders
  • Small torso, terminating at waist
  • Arms held to the body with elbows bent
    • Sometimes depicted with hands grasping a jug
    • Otherwise carved with clenched fists held tightly against the abdomen
    • Others still have forearms extend across flat chest and meet figure's centre
  • Body coloured with red camwood powder
  • White kaolin applied in recesses of mouth

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