TRIBAL AFRICAN ART

MAHONGWE (HONGWE, HUNGWE, MAHONGOUE, MAHOUNGOUE, OSSYEBA)

Gabon

The Mahongwe constitute the northern branch of the Kota peoples. They live in the extreme northeast of Gabon near the Republic of the Congo border. Numbering between 3,000 and 5,000 individuals, they have long remained apart owing to their obstinate resistance to the penetration of French administration. The Mahongwe practice an ancestor cult (bwiti or bwete) that was at the center of a system of beliefs and rites and ancestor worship formed the core of the family group’s religious and social life. Fearful of the deceased the Mahongwe showed particular devotion to relics of important ancestors of the lineage, guarantors for the protection and survival of the group. At the death of a chief, the initiates would take from the body of the deceased various relics, which then decorated with metal and rubbed with powders of multiple magical powers. These relics, augmented by some “charms” and other power substances, were kept in woven rattan baskets upon which were arranged reliquary figures in wood plated with thin copper or brass strips, plates of wire.  It was believed that the sculls and bones of important men retained their power after death. Every Mahongwe clan has a reliquary kept in the back of the chief’s hut. These relics were expected to protect and benefit the families that owned them. At the time of initiation in the reliquary cult, the clans would meet to perform communal rituals; each clan’s chief would dance holding the reliquary. Some reliquaries featured a large figure representing the lineage founder along with some smaller figures representing his successors.  Mahongwe reliquary figures consist of three distinct sections: the oval, concave face with projecting top knot, the cylindrical neck, and an openwork base. The mouth is missing. The heads of these remarkable abstractions are large and do not have upper or side pieces. The base is of lozenge form. They are considered dangerous to handle because of their role in former funeral rites, which have not been practiced for over sixty years. Mahongwe masks are rare.

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