In Focus

Janus reliquary guardian figure

The Kota and related peoples preserved the relics of honored ancestral leaders in baskets guarded by reliquary figures. Affixed to the baskets, the figures were carved from a single piece of wood and covered in metal.

In contrast to the figurative reliquary guardians of other African cultures, the Kota guardians appear abstract. A large ovoid head with minimal facial features rests on a lozenge shape that represents the arms of a truncated body. The forms projecting from the top and sides of the face correspond to men’s elaborate hairstyles or headwear, and some figures have iron accents and ear ornaments. Size may indicate function. Large, Janus-faced figures are thought to have guarded the relics belonging to an extensive lineage group, while smaller ones guarded those of families. It is unknown whether one side represents a female and the other a male.

Similar to other double-faced reliquary guardian figures, each face on the Dallas guardian is unique in its conception. The face on one side is concave and clad in copper with bands of brass crossing the center. Its coffee-bean-shaped eyes protrude, its mouth is open to reveal teeth, and the crescent-shaped crest is decorated with crosshatching and bosses. The other face, clad in brass with a copper band placed across the eyes from temple to temple, is convex beneath a prominent forehead. Iron screws that pierce the eyes to form irises, parallel vertical iron bars under the eyes that may represent scarification, and a piece of red cloth inserted into its mouth are among its other features.

The materials chosen to make the reliquary guardian figure may have been practical as well as symbolic. For example, the Kota may have thought the reflective quality of copper and brass could repel harmful spirits. While both iron and copper were available in limited quantities locally, copper was obtained solely through trade with Europe. The decorative knoblike motifs may reference the foreign source of the brass, which was also used in the creation of multisized basins called “Neptune’s caldrons” and wire. Thus, expensive materials projected the image of wealth and served as a repellent.

The Dallas reliquary guardian figure is attributed to Semangoy, a Wumbu group artisan from Zokolunga, a small village near Moanda. He decorated one side of the crescent with a characteristic mark—an incised miniature crescent bisected by a line with a boss at each end.

Excerpt from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 200.