Ambete / Mbete figures
The Ambete (Mbete, Mbede, Mbete and Mbeti) claiming a Kota origin live in the Republic of Congo near the northern frontier
of Gabon and also in northern Gabon. In view of the shifting location of the peoples living in this region, it is impossible to
retrace the precise history of the Mbete culture. Certain ethnological and sociological aspects of their life are relatively well
known, and we know that the secret societies were numerous and powerful. The Ambete do not have any centralized
political organization; they practice ancestor worship. They carved three types of sculpture: heads, busts and full figures.

The latter are thought to have a connection with the ancestor’s cult – they were either used as reliquaries or placed
alongside ancestor bones in a basket. Heads and busts were probably positioned on poles and placed in front of the chief’s
house. They may have had an apotropaic and emblematic purpose. Instead, statues are provided with a dorsal, rectangular
cavity, or the body itself may be in the shape of a reliquary chest. In this case, generally the head alone is sculpted in the
round, the arms and lower extremities only roughly carved out.

The faces of the Mbete statues show a prominent forehead overhanging a hollow receding face with a rectangular mouth
and broadly carved features, so that the original tree-trunk form is still visible. The arms are often fixed to the body and the
hands and feet barely discernible. The shoulders are thrown forward, the arms slightly bent. Frequently, the hairdo,
composed of horizontal loops, is parted by a central crest. The relics could be set inside the statue. In this case the upper
body of the statuette is particularly elongated and the back hollowed out with a box-shaped cavity accessible through a small
door held in place with a thread. It is thought that this would hold the long bones of hunters who had played an important
role in tribal life.
(Information from:

I do not have any Ambete figures in my collection.
The information and images below are for reference purposes only.
A fine and rare Ambete female figure
standing on elongated, wedge-shaped feet, the thick, faceted bent legs with angular ankles and knees supporting the cylindrical torso with rounded
hips, prominent pudendum and conical breasts, the helmet-like head with abstract mask-like features including a notched mouth, protruding nose
and slit-like eyes framed by large oval ears pierced at the center for insertion (?) and wearing a domed geometric coiffure; fine aged patina of kaolin
with areas of black pigment at the feet, hands, neck and head.
height 14 3/4 in. (37.5cm.)

Cf. Robbins and Nooter (1989: 348) for closely related examples. Ambete figures are rare, and little is known about their use or funtion. Full figures
among the Ambete are often found in pairs and are thought to represent ancestors. The offered female figure is most certainly by the same carver
and is perhaps even the pendant work to a male figure, formerly in the collection of Paul Colin, Paris (Picard, Paris, 12 May 1992: lot 7).
Sotheby's - New York
Arts of Africa, Oceania & The Americas
Auction Date : May 17, 2002


each of similar form, standing on wedge-shaped feet with bent legs leading to cylindrical torsos with bent arms held to the front, beneath shelf-like
shoulders, the large heads with heart-shaped facial planes and delicately carved features including small mouths, pointed noses and slit eyes and
wearing ridged coiffures; fine honey brown patina with encrusted kaolin and areas of black.

Estimate:$ 20,000 - $ 30,000
Price Realized: $ 32,265

According to the information accompanying the figures, Anatole France Collection, 1904 Drouôt, Paris, 30 November 1981, lot 46 Pace Primitive and
Ancient Art, New York Cf. Robbins and Nooter (1989: 348) for a related Ambete pair.
Male Reliquary Figure
Gabon, Africa
Collection ID: A206
Wood w/ shell, metal & textile
Early 20th Century, 44.75" H x 9" W
The Ambete live on the border of Gabon and the Republic of Congo. They are related to the Kota. Their fully carved figures, such
as this excellent example, had a niche carved into the back for magical ingredients. They are believed to function as guardians of the remains
of ancestral bones housed in a separate hut in the village. Very Fine Condition
Brass Covered Reliquary Figure
Gabon, Africa
Collection ID: A213
Wood w/ metal, fiber
20th Century, 29" H x 8" W
An important and fine metal-covered reliquary figure in classic pose with legs bent at knees, arms held firmly at sides and staring eyes fixed
straight ahead. A hinged door on the reverse containing ritual material in the hollow carved into the male figures back. Connected with a
cult of the ancestors.
This object was for sale at an auction site - Arte Primitivo
Lot# & Name: 422. Ambete Fetish Figure  

Category: African  
Sub Category: West Africa  
Culture or Country: Tsogo, Gabon.  
Period: --  
Size: 19"H.  

Description: Carved wood, standing, stylized human figure holding hands to stomach having striated hairdo with a central crest. Inset cowrie
shell eyes and metal teeth. Votive compartment in back. Painted white ground with black highlights. Surface wear, left hand and tip of left foot
reattached, otherwise intact. Mounted on a black base.  
Provenance: Private NYC collection, purportedly ex. Pierre Verite collection.  
This object was for sale at an auction site - Arte Primitivo
Lot# & Name: 423. Ambete Fetish Figure  
Estimate: $1,250.00

Category: African  
Sub Category: West Africa  
Culture or Country: Tsogo, Gabon.  
Period: --  
Size: 18-3/4"H.  

Description: Carved wood figure depicting the upper body terminating with an integral, double tiered disc base. Hands held in front of stomach, stylized
relief facial features with rectangular mouth, central crested hairdo. White pigmented surface with painted black highlights, surface somewhat encrusted.
Right hand reattached and surface a bit flaky otherwise intact.  
Provenance: Private N.Y.C collection, purportedly Ex. Tony Chen and Alfred Scheinberg collections.  
Statua reliquiario (Reliquary statue)
Etnia Ambete, Gabon (Ambete, Gabon)
XIX secolo (19th Century)
Legno policromo, h. cm. 79 (Polychrome wood, height 70cm 30.8 inches)

Aristide Courtois, Charles Ratton, René Rasmussen, Galerie Monbrison, Hubert Goldet

Prezzo di aggiudicazione in asta nel 2001/Sold at auction in 2001: 1,851,000 USD
Foto tratta dal catalogo d'asta "Collezione Goldet" / Photo from the catalog "Goldet Collection"
Photo on the right is the same figure from the book: The Tribal Arts of Africa
These two Mbete reliquary guardian figures are on display at the Worcester African Cultural Center (WACC).
The pieces were purchased in Chad and brought to the United States in early December of 2003.  The figures
are on currently included in an upcoming exhibit at the Worcester Cultural Center.

Traditionally, the cultural role of these sculptures was to protect the ancestral remains contained within the
small cavities carved into the backs of the guardian figures.  Their religion, bwiti, is based in the power of
ancestral spirits.  It was believed that small bones, such as finger bones and pieces of the skull, retained the
power of deceased ancestors.  By preserving these relics, the power of the deceased ancestor would provide
protections and blessings on the family members caring for the remains.  

The Mbete tradition was distinctive to the Ogowe River region in the sense that the guardian figures were also
the containers of the ancestral remains.  The sculptures were symbolic and decorative containers, with the true
value credited to the relics held within.  This has allowed for the removal of such guardian figures without
upsetting the significance of the traditional belief.  Thus, most guardian figures produced in the Ogowe River
area today are created for tourist trade.
Images above from the book: African Art in American Collections
901. Female figure/Wood, metal, pigments/ 27 1/2 in. (82.6 cm) Pierre Matisse
902. Male figure/Wood, pigment, beads, cowrie shells/32 1/2 in. (82.6 cm) Pierre Matisse
903. Female figure/Wood, pigment/22 1/2 in. (57.2 cm) Fred and Rita Richman
904. Male figure/Wood, pigment/23 1/2 in. (59.7 cm) Fred and Rita Richman
Ambete statue whose head forms the top of a reliquary.
Congo. Ambete. Wood. H: 80 cm. D: 22 cm.
Musee de I'Afrique et de I'Oceanie, Paris.
From the book:
Black Africa by Laure Meyer
Sotheby's May 2003
of cubistic form, standing on fragmentary, wedge-shaped feet, the angular legs supporting rounded
hips and prominent pudendum, the barrel-shaped torso beneath the elongated neck and stylized head
with heart-shaped facial plane, straight nose and rounded oval eyes framed by demi¬lune ears; the
whole covered with brass plates with areas of repousse and attached with flat nails.
height 18 1/2in.   47cm

Acquired from Pace Gallery, New York, 1992
See Perrois (2002: 88) for a closely related male figure and a female figure. The male now in The
Musee de I'Homme was formerly in the collection of Paul Guillaume. The female was collected between
1895 and 1914 by Paul Scagliola, a forester working in Gabon. For another very similar male figure
from a private Belgian collection see, number 22538, Van Rijn Archives. For a related figure from the
Schoffel Collection which is stylistically close, to the Ambete see Chaffin and Chaffin ;1980(: 295  
figure 178). According to Schoffel (ibidt, this figure "can ba attributed to the Ambete. It is an important
piece 'for the understanding of the relationship between Fang and Kota art. This is a statuette treated
in a cubist manner. Its face is plated. ...The shape of the body is Fang.'

According to Perrois, the small corpus of abstract brass-covered figures suggest an affiliation between
pigmented Ambete reliquary figures with dorsal cavities from the old style of the Ambete-Obamba from
northwest Congo, and the more well-documented styles of the Bakota from Haut-Ogooue. See Perrois
(2002) for related figures and further discussion of Ambete art and its relationship to the artistic
traditions of the Bakota.

estimate $15,000-20,000
sold for $10,000
Rand African Art
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