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Date: late 19th or early 20th century
Artist: Semangoy of Zokolunga,
Medium:Brass, copper, iron, wood, and fiber
Geographic Location: Gabon
Dimensions: Overall: 24 13/16 x 19 11/16 x 5 in. (63.025 x 50.008 x 12.7 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.
Object Number: 2005.36.McD

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The Kota [KO-tuh] people of Gabon [gah-BON] believe this janus, or bi-faced, guardian figure sees everything at all times.  The figure, carved from a single piece of wood and covered with sheets of brass and copper, protects the remains of honored ancestral leaders from evil spirits.   An elaborate hairstyle frames the faces, and rectangular ear ornaments hang from either side. The diamond shape below the head represents the arms of the figure’s truncated body.  


Guardian figures like this served as a messenger between the earthly world and the world of ancestors and spirits. The bones of the deceased, thought to hold supernatural powers, were put into a sack and attached to the body of the figure.   The reliquaries were then placed on a basket and moved to a shelter separate from living spaces, where they were protected and honored.


Double Faces

Although the form of this reliquary figure is abstract, it represents an ancestor of the Kota [KO-tuh] people. The wide-open eyes suggest that it is a vigilant guard and sees everything at all times.   The two faces on this object are unique. One face is concave. It is covered in copper with bands of brass crossing at the center. Coffee-bean-shaped eyes extend beyond the surface, the mouth is open to reveal teeth, and the crescent-shaped crest is decorated with crosshatching and protruding circular studs. 
The other face, covered in brass with a copper band located across the eyes from temple to temple, is convex beneath a prominent forehead. Iron screws pierce the eyes to form irises, while vertical iron bars under the eyes may represent scarification. Although uncertain of its significance, a piece of red cloth is inserted into its mouth.  
The term “janus-faced” means having two faces – one looking forward, one looking backward. The origin of the word comes from the Roman deity Janus who had two faces back to back. The term is used only as a descriptor and does not indicate a relationship between the object and Roman culture.
The head, specifically the face and the hairstyle, are the dominant feature of the janus figures. Most Kota reliquary figures have an extremely stylized human body, which is reduced to shoulders and arms in a diamond shape.   Figures range from approximately 30 to 60 centimeters in total height.
This reliquary figure is made from a single piece of wood. It is covered with sheets of brass and copper and includes iron accents.   The three valuable metals used to make the object were acquired through trade with Europeans. The Kota may have thought the preciousness and the reflective quality of the material could repel harmful spirits. 
Artist’s Mark
This work is attributed to Semangoy, a Wumbu group artisan from Zokolunga, a small village near Moanda in southeast Gabon [gah-BON]. He decorated one side of the crescent-shape with a characteristic mark: a miniature incised crescent, bisected by a line, with protruding circular studs at each end.
Ancestral Connection
For the Kota, the family structure includes both the living and the dead. Ancestor worship formed the core of the family group’s religious and social life. Communication often occurred between the earthly world and the world of ancestors and spirits. Guardian figures like this served as messengers between these worlds, aiding in communication between the living and the dead.   The descendants regularly honored their ancestors and prayed to them for blessings of good health, prosperity, successful hunts, and many children. 
Guardian figures protected the remains of great men and great lineages from evil spirits. The skull and bones of the deceased were bound in a sack (bwete) and attached to the diamond-shaped body of the figure. The figure was then placed on top of a basket and moved to a shelter with other reliquary figures that was separate from living spaces. Size of the figures 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 individual families.
Image:  Charles Stephen-Chauvet, L'Art funeraire au Gabon, Immaculee, Castres, France, 1933
Ancestral skulls are removed from the reliquary and arranged before the guardian figure.

The Kota Peoples
Before settling in northeastern Gabon and the bordering areas of the Congo [KAHNG-go], the Kota peoples migrated across Africa for years. Kota society is made up of several smaller groups that are governed by village chiefs. Kota religion is based on the cult of ancestors, whose power is thought to reside within their skulls and bones. Today, the Kota number around one hundred and twenty five thousand. 


Encouraging Dialogue

Making Connections


Encouraging Dialogue
1. Metal and wood were used to create this reliquary figure.   What are the physical properties of these materials?
2. Ancestors play an important role in the lives of the Kota. Describe ways ancestors or descendents are honored in your culture.   
3. Why do you think it is important that we know about our ancestors? What types of information can we discover about ourselves?
4. The term “janus-faced” means having two faces. Consider the following quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson - “A friend is Janus-faced: he looks to the past and the future.”   What do you think Emerson means?  
Making Connections

1. Create a work of art that is janus-faced.    The work can be two recognizable or abstracted faces or based upon opposing terms (i.e. poverty/wealth, harmony/discord).


2. Write about an ancestor. Consider the following questions:

·         How is this person related to you?
·         What is the relevance of this person in your life?
·         What qualities does this person have that you would like to have?
·         What accomplishments did this person achieve in life?
·         If applicable, how is this person a part of your life now? (i.e. photographs, family heirlooms, names, physical features, etc.)
3. Research the use of reliquaries in another culture. How are they related to belief? What connection do they have with ancestors?






Embedded Audio Player.
Learn about the Kota peoples.


Embedded Audio Player.
Listen to museum educator Shannon Karol discuss the function of this reliquary.
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Listen to museum educator Shannon Karol discuss ancestors in Africa.

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Curator Roslyn Walker discusses this reliquary guardian figure.

Reference Books:
African Faces, African Figures: The Arman Collection. New York : Museum for African Art, 1997. Cat. no. 103. 
LaGamma, Alisa, ed. Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; New Haven : Yale University Press, 2007. 
Perani, Judith. The Visual arts of Africa: Gender, Power, and Life Cycle Rituals. Chapter 7, “Cameroon Grassfields, Ogowe River Basin.” Upper Saddle River, New Jer.: Prentice Hall, 1998. 
Perrois, Louis. Ancestral Art of Gabon from the Collections of the Barbier-Mueller Museum. Geneva: The Museum, 1985. 
Walker, Roslyn A. The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. Catalog no. 69, pages 200-201.
Books for Students:
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. A is for Africa. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1993.
The Smithsonian's collection of Kota art includes reliquary figures.
This resource includes a description of the Kota people.
An interactive resource which includes a Kota reliquary figure.






Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood.  Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging.  In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy.  Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.


  1. Consider the Museum Setting

Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions.  Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture.  These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects.  Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.


  1. Provide Context and Narrative

When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used.  Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today.  Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way. 


Equally important to context is geography.  Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures.  A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes. 


  1. Use Inclusive Language

Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases.  By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider.  Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.”  Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion.  Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.


  1. Carefully Select Vocabulary

When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures.  Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity.  Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc.  This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions. 

Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).


  1. Avoid Decontextualizing Activities

Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context.  Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context.  (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit)  Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied. 


  1. Find Common Connections

Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires.  We all seek to understand the world and our place within it.  Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples.  Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own.  While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion.  Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate. 


  1. Consider the Study of Cultures

In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely.  Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement.  This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures.  Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others. 




Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.


Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006. 


Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.


Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World.  Information Age Publishing, 2009.


Prothero, Stephen.  God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.  Harper One, 2010.


Prothero, Stephen.  Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t.  San Francisco: Harper, 2007.


Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.


Said, Edward.  Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.


“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”