This new title in the Visions of Africa
series offers a deep insight into the art of the Kota people of Gabon in the coastal area of western equatorial Africa. The Kota have developed an astonishing creativity in their representations of their ancestors. Their dreamlike figures combine a sharp sense of stylised reality tending towards abstraction with an extraordinary and imaginative use of copper, tin, and iron for purposes of decoration. But what seems to have been just a matter of aesthetic 'taste' has in fact a symbolic function, as most of the decorative motifs and the choice of the technique are linked to the Kota's kinship system or religious beliefs. The same applies to the use of copper, which was a rare material and consequently a mark of wealth and power in their society. The mbulu-ngulu reliquary figure was an icon, the visual sign of a world in which the ancestors continued to watch over their descendants. In Kota lands it was an essential 'tool' in group survival, one that enabled a continuous communication to be established between the living and the dead. The reliquary figures and initiation masks of the Kota and Mbete served as aides-mémoire and instruments useful in arousing the forces of the netherworld among the Gabonese and Congolese in times past. Together with the Fang byeri and other nkisi punu, in their various forms they have gradually become the time-honoured emblems of the culture and ancestral values of the peoples of the great African equatorial forest.