A fragmentary Bakota-Obama (Mbulu ngulu) sculpture

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A fragmentary Bakota-Obama (Mbulu ngulu) sculpture from Gabon, carved from heavy, hard wood and coated with strips of copper and brass, the circular eyes made of bones, posted on a wooden plinth, Around 1950.

Related Lit. Ingeborg Bolz, ‘Zur Kunst in Gabon: Stilkritische Untersuchungen an Masken und Plastiken des Ogowe-Gebietes’, Ethnologica: Beiträge zur Afrikanischen Kunst, Vol. 3, 1966,
Louis Perrois, Kota, Milan, 2012, p. 95, pl. 14, and p. 147.

When the funeral sculptures of the Ba Kota were discovered around 1920 and the first publications appeared, what happened in the following years happened again and again: scarcely had there any enthnological “discoveries” that lay outside the village protection, were the objects in stolen in no time. There are many examples in African history for this. So there were no more Gwandusus within 2 years, because these Bamana sculptures were set up in the open field and were so easy prey of art robbers, which usually locals incited them to betray the places where these figures were placed as protective figures in the open air. Similar things happened with the Djenne-Terracotta after the Prof. Macintoshs had made their excavations public under large press swirls (see National Geographic Magazine). Even the memory heads of the Akan, who were standing on graves similar to the Bakota met the same fate. In many cases, with the exception of the archaeological artifacts, the cult continued to live, but the sculptures and masks were preserved in the villages, and not outside anymore. (the Kore masks of the Bamana, which were kept in the forest for ritual reasons)The question arises as to which objects continued to be cultically cultivated and which objects were produced for the market alone, even though they were no longer kept or set up outside the villages. Already the ethnological or archaeological “discovery” and its publication resulted in making copies that met the needs of the market. Western provenances for “Bakota reliquary figures” – as they are often cited in catalogs – that such an object was in the West in the thirties, say at all about whether such an object was in ritual use.

2.400 – 3.200 Euro

Height: 56 cm
Weight: 2,4 kg

The tradition of making elaborately manufactured Bakota figures was almost always parallel to the objects that were subsequently used in the cult. In the case of the Bakota, the funeral sculptures were still placed on the graves during certain ceremonies. But then took her home, where they could safely keep them. So the cult persisted. Only his practice was modified. Since an early date of receipt to Europe says little about whether such a figure was cultically used (Daba Diarra, Segou, Mali, reported that it was “a popular sport” among young people in the sixties, Gwandusu figures, the fertility rituals for months on Stealing the fields and selling them to Western merchants, within two years, all these figures, and also the Bamana’s Koré masks stored in secret places in the forest, would have been stolen). It does not require any reversal of the burden of proof, as Benédicte Savoy calls it: Certain masks and sculpture types in Africa, which are in Western museums and collections, almost certainly came delicately to the West. In almost all cases there is a connection between scientific explorer publications and the immediate demise of certain forms of rituals and their remnants of rituals.

But back to the question, how can you tell the difference between sculptures that were kept in the “safe house” after a “cult of worship”, ie after outdoor ceremonies, instead of leaving them unprotected in the fields or cemeteries and those for the market? were manufactured?
If you want to make that distinction at all. In any case, the trade does not make it in its provenance descriptions and focuses solely on the date of receipt in the West for a high valorization and the museums usually know not much about “derivative cults”, which emerged only through Western influence and “organized art robbery” are. A “blind spot” in science because it touches the vanity of many scientists who as Goldwater once intended to introduce his “discoveries” to the Gwandusu and Bamana sculptures as quickly as possible and often as effective as an audience (see the professors Macintoshs at Jenné Terracotta). What fatal consequences this had for a living cult in Africa was almost always ignored and is still a taboo subject.
The cited Bakota figure, who is presumably attributed to the “Bakota-Obama”, there are indications that this figure may
comes from the “derivative cult”. That the figure at the base looks like “broken off” or “eroded” is found in many copies and forgeries. Also that the wood is obviously old and weathered, is not a sufficient criterion.

The polished-bone eyes, however, reveal the remains of an encrusted resin, which appears as a dark oxidation. There is also a horizontal hole in the trapezoidal wooden part of the figure whose function raises puzzles. There are rounded traces of wear and tear that can only be made with great effort. For a market adequate production these signs make no sense, because the market is based on the mental image that exists in the West.


Additional information

Weight 2.4 kg