If you came to this page looking for a subject other than the current topic of Kota mbulu-ngulu figures, click below for the
"You Be the Judge" ARCHIVES"
You Be the Judge...
Kota mbulu-ngulu figures
A few words from me...

John Monroe wrote an essay that was published on www.tribalartforum.org that deals with authenticity regarding Igbo masks and
did a fantastic job with the article. (See a link to the article in my Educational Resources page on my site)

John Monroe stated the following in the beginning of his essay that captured my feelings exactly, he just said it better than I
could have, so I would like to quote him:

"For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of getting to know African art is the process of  "eye sharpening" that happens as
you learn more about the material.  Knowledge and experience can open up whole new worlds - it's a matter of learning how to
see a particular kind of beauty that isn't readily accessible to someone accustomed to European art. When collectors and
dealers refer to this process of eye-training, they generally talk about learning to distinguish the "authentic" from the "fake," with
the presupposition that authenticity is also a marker of esthetic quality.   From this perspective, if it's authentic, made by a
particular group for its own use, then it's beautiful; if it's fake, made for sale to visitors, then it's kitsch.

This assumption makes me uncomfortable. I prefer to leave open the possibility that there are some excellent pieces made for
sale to visitors, and that African creativity can flourish in the contemporary international marketplace just as it once flourished in
the narrower colonial one. When I'm deciding on a piece, my main concern is not "is this sculpture authentic," but rather "is this
sculpture beautiful."

At the same time, however, it's impossible to avoid the question of  "authenticity" if you are interested in collecting fine pieces of
African art.  This is true for both esthetic and financial reasons.  First, the esthetic.  In my experience, I've found that the pieces
African people have made for their own use generally tend to be finer and more subtle than those made for sale to visitors.
Second, the financial.  Authentic pieces, for reasons I'll try to explain a bit, fetch far higher prices than pieces deemed to be
inauthentic. Therefore, knowing how to recognize authenticity is crucial to being an informed buyer."

I chose this topic of mbulu-ngulu figures for this You Be the Judge page because of a few factors:
1) I knew next to nothing about them and 2) I had never really been interested in them up until now and recently I have become
interested in them and have started to research them and learn about them.

Early on in my collecting I had seen several of these figures in galleries that I went to. They were high priced and seemed very
different to me than most of the other African Art I was being exposed to. I wasn’t attracted at all to the Kota figures aesthetically
and hadn’t given them a second thought until this year.

I have been studying them in books and auction catalogs and on the Internet in the past couple of months and in my mind I had
started to put together the styles of the ones that I liked the best and styles of the ones that I thought were outright copies and
of bad quality. The more I started to read about them the more interesting they became and the more appealing they became.
The thing that I had a challenge with is how do you tell if the one you may be interested in buying is a good one? An authentic
one? One of proper style and quality? Of course the first answer to these questions may be to start with a reputable dealer in
which you trust, but what if you do not have that option in the place where you live?

In my studies, I found the examples (below) in which I thought were copies and were bad copies at that. One example, the last
one, even mentioned that it was 40 years old and had been taken directly from a cemetery.
Some bad examples (in my eye)
It's hard for the average collector, in my opinion, to tell age of metal. It doesn't have the same type of wear pattern or patina that you would
see in a wooden object. It’s clear from some of the bad examples above that attempts were made to make the pieces look older than they
actually are. The mbulu-ngulu figures did have some areas of exposed wood and some of the figures I had come across looked to have wear
on the wooden areas and a lot were partially broken off. Some looked like they had old nails in them and some it was hard to tell. Some the
metal was shiny and some appeared to have signs of age.

I still wasn't fully understanding what made one cost $3,000 and another bring at auction $15,000 or  $120,000 and upwards to over
$400,000! There didn't seem to be a lot of apparent age to the ones that were bringing high prices? Some of them didn't have great
provenance. What was it about them that made them special? Does it come down to
provenance on these types of pieces??? They stopped
using these types of figures around or before 1930 and a lot of pieces that I saw in auction catalogs said they were purchased in the 70's but
didn't mention anything else about provenance?!? If I had the resources, and I knew that the figure I was purchasing was indeed very old and
authentic, then I guess I can see why someone would pay the high prices. After all, these figures are from a tradition that is now lost.

So, how do you tell if the figure you are interested in is authentic? There are many variations of these figures and I have tried to select a few
examples of many different styles for this page. Some are from private collections, some from galleries, some from major auction houses....
but I am leaving the information on all of the figures off of the page for now. I have painstakingly taken all of the images that were sent to me
and ones that I acquired and given them all the same playing field which is a black back ground. This way we can't tell which ones were
professionally photographed against a nice background and which ones were not.

I have also added a few new features to this page this time. I am not selecting a piece for discussion as I have in the past, but instead I am
putting several examples out there for people to look at and judge. I have also added some form elements to the page which will allow for
people to vote, if you will, if they think a piece is authentic, if it is a copy, or if they can not tell or are undecided. If you are going to vote on a
piece I would hope that you will also put comments in the comments section as to why you think the piece is good or why you think the piece
is bad. You can sign your name to the comments or you can remain completely anonymous. At the bottom of the page there is a button you
can use to submit all of your votes and comments at once (Please read the comments below the button).

In a few weeks I will compile all of the votes and all of the comments on the pieces and I will post them to this page with the respective
summary of votes and comments underneath each piece along with the
history and information I have on each piece. This way, people can
go back and look at the results and see what the general consensus on each piece was and also see where the piece originated from. I am
hoping that when I compile all of the votes and comments that this page will become a good resource for people to go to and compare
different pieces and see what people have had to say about them.

**At the very bottom of the page I have listed a link to an extensive study that was done on the Kota figures. It is called “Reflections on the
funerary art of the Kota" by Gerard DeLorme. I was told about the study from African Antiques member Des Bovey and it's a fascinating
study! The only problem was that it was done in French. I have translated the entire study to English and re-created the page. If you have a
few hours....its an interesting read. It documents the history of the people, classifies the different styles of figures produced, talks about the
recent productions of these figures and much more. It's all you ever wanted to know about the Kota and much, much more.

I hope you enjoy this form of interaction!
A little information...
Hunters obamba photographed by E Anderson in the area of
Mossendjo, Congo in the Thirties.
Text by: Robin Poynor (A History of Art in Africa)

Adjacent to the Fang in the Upper Ogowe River are of eastern Gabon and into the Congo Republic live the Kota
peoples. The Kota are actually a number of groups with common cultural traits. Their present position is due to their
movements under pressure from the Kwele peoples, who had been driven from their own territories between the 17th
and 19th centuries by the Fang. Kota subgroups such as the Shamaye, Hongwe, Obama, Mindumu, and Shake each
stayed more or less together as enteties during migrations over the past several centuries, but many others were
broken up and scattered. Although they share many cultural traits, the groups are by no means homogeneous. They
live in villages comprising two or more clans. Clans in turn compromise several lineages or family groups that trace
their descent from a common lineage ansestor. This is an important point related to their art, for like the Fang, the
Kota revere the relics of ancestors.

The Kota keep bones and other relics of extraordinary ancestors in baskets or bundles called "bwete". Bound into a
packet and lashed to the base of a carved figure, the bones formed a stable base that allowed the image to stand
more or less upright. The type of bundle varied according to location. The figures, called "mbulu-ngulu", like the
guardian figures on Fang nsek-bieri, served as protectors of the bundle.
There are several types of mbulu-ngulu, and a number of sub styles can be identified. All are based upon the human
face, even though they are abstracted and refer to non-human spiritual forces. All are carved of wood, then have
copper sheeting or strips applied to the surfaces. This shinning material both attracts out attention and acts as a
shield, and it is possible that it was seen as being able to "throw back" evil forces. The style of the mbulu-ngulu
depicted above on the engraving has a number of variants. The forehead of the figure may complete the concavity of
the oval face, as in the figure above on the right, or it may bulge out in counter play, as in the figure on the left. The
facial features are summarily indicated. Here, disc-shaped eyes were created by applying metal bosses and the nose
os a slim pyramidal shape. The mouth is simply represented or left out entirely.

These stylistic features are also noticable on the mbulu-ngulu from the southern Kota in figure (10-35) below.
Emphasizing the plane on the face, it is almost two-dimensional in conception. A distinctly concave, oval face is framed
by a transverse, crescent-shaped crest above and two lateral wings that suggest a hairdo. Cylindrical pegs drop from
the wings, suggesting ear ornaments. Sheet metal in alternating segments of brass and copper form a cross-shape on
the face and completely covers the front of the crescent and the wings. A long, cylindrical neck connects the facial
configuration to an open lozenge, which can be read as the arms of the figure, but which was once used to lash the
mbulu-ngulu figure to its bwete bundle.

The smaller, very beautiful mbulu-ngulu in figure (10-36) below is a variation on the theme. The transverse crest is
much narrower than the crescent-shaped crest in figure (10-35). The lateral wings are curved, and there are no
eardrops, though holes in the wings may have held earrings. The face of the figure is convex rather than concave, with
a bulging forehead and eye sockets. Both sheet copper and sheet brass have been used to cover the form. A diadem
motif frames the forehead, picked out in copper. The circular, projecting eyers are unusual for Kota figures.
Information and photos directly above were taken from the book "A History of Art in Africa", text by Robin Poynor
click on image to see larger version
The authentic creation of this kind of reliquary guardian figures ceased around 1930 as a result of aggressive
proselytizing by Christian missionaries, the imposition of a new social organization centered on the Western-style
nuclear family, and indigenous movements aimed at destroying certain local religious practices. Consequently, many
of these sculptures were destroyed by burning or concealed by burial.
Now to the examples...
The original purpose of this page was to have people look at a photograph of a figure, originally there was a
voting and comment box underneath each figure. People had the chance to vote if they thought the figure was
authentic, a copy, or not sure. There was also a box for them to put comments in.

I gave an end date for people to do this and then I took the voting boxes out of this page and I published the
results in the RESULTS PAGE (linked below). The results page gave some background on each figure and it
showed the votes and the comments. It was an interesting and interactive experiment.

Below are the examples, I have removed the large images from this page, but you can still click on the images to
see the full size versions of the photos. Please keep in mind that the photos are pretty large, but it will show you
good detail.

You can view the results of the judging and comments in the RESULTS PAGE
click on any image to see
full size version

- I have added a PAGE 2 of Kota figures.

CLICK HERE to go to page 2 to see 5 additional figures
Rand African Art
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