“Living on the eastern side of Gabon, on the frontier with the Republic of Congo, the Kota people comprise a number of small tribes such as the Mahongwe, the Sango, the Obamba and the Shamaye, who all practice similar ceremonies. It is though they migrated southwards during the 18th century and settled in the upper valley of the Ogooué River, in a forest environment. Their main resources come mostly from hunting and agriculture.
Historically, the Kota left their dead unburied in the forest, far from the village. Under the influence of neighboring tribes, they began to bury their dead. Chiefs were always buried, but often their bones (especially their skull) were later exhumed and placed with magical objects (shells, seeds, fruits) in a bark box or a basket called a Bwete, in which a carved figure was inserted.
These reliquary baskets were kept for generations, but during the 20th century, when religious beliefs changed, they were abandoned or even destroyed. Between 1940 and 1964, a movement referred to as the ‘culte des demoiselles’ was responsible for the destruction of most of these traditional objects. This movement was based on the idea that mimicking Western values and lifestyles, as well as abandoning the old cults and idols, would help them to gain what they perceived as western power.
The reliquary baskets, Bwetes, were kept in a special cupboard at the back of the the chief’s house. The Bwetes were the focus of offerings and prayers aimed at bringing good fortune to the clan. During boys’ initiation ceremonies, several of these boxes – representing different families and clans – were grouped together, reinforcing the unity of the various components of the tribe. On top of the Bwerte basket a figure was placed with a highly stylized body in the shape of a lozenge, which supports an enlarged, stylized copper-plated head. The back of the head is usually undecorated, except for a geometrical shape. Some rare examples display two faces. Even rarer are a few figures displaying a stylized body on a four-footed stool. Their function is unknown.”
“Kota masks are scarce. They are principally helmet masks and have simplified features such as tubular eyes, large incised brows and a crested coiffure. They are often covered with pigments and were used in initiation ceremonies.”
“Six different regional styles of Kota figure have been identified:
- Mahongwe (also called Ossyeba) figures have a truncated almond-shaped face covered with metal wires.
- Shamaye figures have an almond-shaped face covered with metal wires and sheets and framed by two lateral flanges.
- Obamba figures have an oval face partly covered with metal sheet, lateral flanges and a curved coiffure.
- Kota figures have an oval face, curved coiffure and lateral flanges ending in horizontal line.
- Upper Ogooue figures have an oval face, sometimes a curved coiffure and S-shaped lateral flanges.
- Sango figures have a small elongated head without any flanges or coiffure.”
Baquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc. 1998. Print.