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Mbulu Ngulu

Late 19th century
Artist/maker unknown, Obamba, Kota

This figure, called a mbulu ngulu, was attached to a container holding the remains of an ancestor. Until the mid-1900s, central Africans venerated their most influential family members—a religious practice referred to as Bwiti or Bwete in the Kota language. Reliquary sculptures like this one acted as conduits for ancestral energies activated during communal activities. Help that the family spirits could provide ranged from the transfer of knowledge or property to assuring good health or harvests.

This mbulu ngulu has a crown punctuated with incised arrangements of diamond shapes, echoed in the design along the stem of the work. Two taupe-colored brass strips divide the oblong face into quarters, which are covered with thin red-hued copper strips.

White artists started appropriating the extreme stylization of African art after they saw works similar to this in international colonial exhibitions in Paris, London, and other European capitals. Pablo Picasso’s 1908–9 painting Seated Female Nude (1950-134-164) is one example.

Object Details

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