From the 18th century to the mid-20th century, the Kota people of eastern Gabon made guardian or reliquary figures that were attached to baskets containing the powerful relics of deceased ancestors. They constructed these protective figures, or mbulu-ngulu, of wood covered by copper or brass plates. The figures take the characteristic form of an abstract diamond-shaped lower body topped by a stylized face with elaborate hairstyle.
Kota mbulu-ngulu became popular in Europe beginning in the late 19th century. Many people collected them, including artists such as Pablo Picasso. Dr. John Alexander (1888–1967), head of thoracic surgery at the U-M Hospital, collected the figure shown here in 1926. Alexander was an avid collector of masks and related objects from around the world: the Museum’s Alexander Collection includes nearly 150 masks from Africa, China, Europe, Japan, and the Americas.
In honor of the University of Michigan’s 2017 bicentennial, we are celebrating the remarkable archaeological and ethnographic collections and rich legacy of research and teaching at the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology by posting one entry a day for 200 days. The entries will highlight objects from the collections, museum personalities, and UMMAA expeditions. The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology is also posting each day for 200 days on Twitter and Facebook (follow along at #KMA200). After the last post, an exhibition on two centuries of archaeology at U-M opens at the Kelsey. Visit the exhibit—a joint project of the UMMAA and the Kelsey—from October 18, 2017 to May 27, 2018.