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Reliquary Guardian Figure (mbulu ngulu)

Unidentified Kota artist
late 19th–early 20th century
Wood, copper, brass, iron
Associated with
Ogooué-Lolo province, Central Africa, Gabon, Africa
Metalwork, sculpture
Current Location
On View, Gallery 102
25 1/2 x 16 1/4 x 4 1/2 in. (64.8 x 41.3 x 11.4 cm)
Credit Line
Funds given by The May Department Stores Company, and gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alvin S. Novack, Morton D. May, Ernest Anspach, Thomas Alexander, Michael Roth, J. Lionberger Davis, Jerry O. Wilkerson, and bequest of Morton D. May, by exchange; Museum Purchase and Friends Fund
Public Domain
Object Number
Kota reliquary guardian figures ("mbulu ngulu"), such as this one, are unique among African sculptural forms in their combination of wood and hammered metal. It is thought that the figurative form of the mbulu ngulu was intended to reinforce and communicate the reliquary’s intense power. The Kota used reliquary guardian figures to protect and identify the revered bones of family ancestors. The Kota believed that the relics of important men and women retain power after death, providing protection and good fortune to an individual’s descendants. The remains were preserved in containers made of bark or basketry. The mbulu ngulu stood atop this bundle, bound to it at the figure’s lozenge-shaped base.
Charles Ratton, Paris, France

early 1960s
Private Collection, New York, NY, USA

- 1984
Pace Gallery [Pace Primitive], New York, NY

1984 -
Alexander Gallery, Inc., purchased from Pace Gallery [Pace Primitive]

- 1989
Alan Lieberman, St. Louis, MO

Alexander Gallery, Inc., St. Louis, MO

1989 -
Saint Louis Art Museum, purchased from Alexander Gallery, Inc.

An invoice dated March 3, 1989 from Alexander Gallery, Inc. to the Saint Louis Art Museum documents the purchase of this object, listed as "9684 Kota Reliquary, Gabon...ex. collection Alan Lieberman, St. Louis / Purchased by Alexander Gallery, November 28, 1984 / Pace Gallery NYC, November 1984 / Private collection, NYC, early 60's / ex. collection Charles Ratton, Paris" [SLAM document files]. Minutes of the Collections Committee of the Board of Trustees, Saint Louis Art Museum, March 2, 1989.

In an email dated October 17, 2012 from Chantal Salomon-Lee of Pace Primitive to Amy Clark of the Saint Louis Art Museum, Salomon-Lee confirmed "...the Kota Reliquary Figure was sold by Pace Primitive to Tom Alexander in 1984. Charles Ratton is indeed mentioned as a provenance for this piece...We did not buy the piece from Ratton. The piece was purchased from an American collector who wishes to remain anonymous." [copy of email in SLAM document files]
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