Photographs © Tim Hamill
MBETE, RELIQUARY FIGURES, Gabon
Old Mbete figures are very rare. Despite their appearance, these figures show no evidence of age or use and were probably made to be sold.
The spiritual connection between the living and the dead is given physical form in these reliquary guardians: carved figures that reflect religious views on the cycle of life and death. The living family not only honors the dead with ceremonies and gifts, but through prayer and ritual, they consult the deceased on significant matters such as warfare, infertility and the prevention of illness.
The traditional role of reliquary figures is to protect the ancestral remains which, in the case of the Mbete, were placed in the cavities carved into the backs of the sculptures. Their religion is based principally on the power of ancestral spirits and it was believed that small bones, such as finger bones and pieces of the skull, retained the power of deceased ancestors. By preserving the relics, that power would provide protection and blessing for the family members caring for the remains.
The sculptures are both symbolic and decorative but the true value and power is credited to the relics held within. This has allowed the removal of such guardian figures without upsetting the significance of traditional belief.
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