Art in Context: Standing Slit Gong and Reliquary Guardian Figure

The Standing Slit Gong from North Ambrym Island in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation, and the Kota Region Reliquary Guardian Figure from Gabon, Africa, share a powerful purpose. For their original audiences, each object provided a profound way for the dead to maintain an active presence in the lives of their ancestors. Groups of gongs such as this (at left) were used during important ceremonies in Vanuatu, enabling the ancestors’ attendance to be felt and heard across miles. In some cases, gongs were used to communicate messages between villages: an original broadband device. This Kota figure from Gabon (at right) was an ornament top for a basket containing the bones of a family member. The triangular base that we see here would have been rooted in the basket and out of view. The people who made these objects were nomadic farmers, and reliquaries were a cherished way to bring ancestors along. The shining quality of the sheet metal is meant to mimic water, which was considered the division between the living and the dead. For both objects, sacred geometry symbolizes the abstract spirit world, and both figures keep their eyes wide open, suggesting spiritual awareness as communication continues.

Standing Slit Gong (atingting kon), 20th century

Reliquary Guardian Figure (mbulu-ngulu), 19th-early 20th century

Aesthetics of traditional African sculpture, with its geometric volume and stylized treatment of the human figure, deeply inspired nineteenth and twentieth century European and American artists, influencing a movement that diversified visual language–moved representation beyond naturalism–and in doing so helped develop what we define as modern art. Could it be that the ancestors’ spirits projected their living presence onto contemporary western society? To see examples of this influence, check out our Modigliani, Matisse, and Picasso! What similarities do you notice?

Amedeo Modigliani, Seated Nude, c. 1918

Henri Matisse, Annelies, White Tulips, and Anemones, 1944

Pablo Picasso, Fan, Pipe, and Glass, 1911

The learning continues: Kota figures are widely known and categorized as Kota People’s Reliquary Figures due to a colonial-era misunderstanding regarding origin. What scholars are beginning to understand through continued research is that these reliquary figures were not actually made by the Kota people themselves but were made by people who inhabited an area of Gabon where Kota people also lived. These figures continue to be referred to as “Kota” due to the complication of all past research regarding these objects being labeled as such. This research is an exciting opportunity to learn about the inadequacies of initial perception when encountering a culture other than one’s own. What we think we know, we might not. And this unknowing creates an opportunity to revisit our position and incorporate new information into our humble way of being in the world.

With research and writing by HoMA Volunteer Docents


Featured Artwork

Standing Slit Gong (atingting kon), 20th century
North Ambrym Island, Vanuatu
Carved wood, traces of pigment
Purchase, 2003 (12939.1)

Kota Region, Gabon
Reliquary Guardian Figure (mbulu-ngulu), 19th-early 20th century
Wood covered with sheet brass and copper
Purchase, 1936 (4265)

Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884–1920)
Seated Nude, c. 1918
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mrs. Carter Galt, 1960 (2895.1)

Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954)
Annelies, White Tulips, and Anemones, 1944
Oil on canvas
Gift of the Friends of the Academy, 1946 (376.1)

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Fan, Pipe, and Glass, 1911
Oil on canvas
Purchase, Academy Fund and gift of the Friends of the Academy, by exchange, 1969 (3576.1)