TRIBAL AFRICAN ART
MBETE (AMBETE, MBEDE, MBETE, MBETI)
Republic of Congo, Gabon
The Mbete claiming a Kota origin live in the middle part of the Republic of Congo near the frontier of Gabon and in eastern Gabon. In view of the shifting location of the peoples living in this region, it is impossible to retrace the precise history of the Mbete culture. Certain ethnological and sociological aspects of their life are relatively well known, and we know that the secret societies were numerous and powerful. The Mbete do not have any centralized political organization; they practice ancestor worship.
They carved three types of sculpture: heads, busts and full figures. The latter are thought to have a connection with the ancestors cult they were either used as reliquaries or placed alongside ancestor bones in a basket. The massive reliquary figures, statues and masks of the Mbete are cubist in structure, the stepped hair-dress having clearly-marked gradations, and the face frequently being painted white.
Heads and busts were probably positioned on poles and placed in front of the chiefs house. They may have had an apotropaic and emblematic purpose. Statues are provided with a dorsal, rectangular cavity, or the body itself may be in the shape of a reliquary chest. The relics could be set inside the statue. In this case the upper body of the statue is particularly elongated and the back hollowed out with a box-shaped cavity accessible through a small door held in place with a thread. It is thought that this would hold the long bones of hunters who had played an important role in tribal life. The arms are often fixed to the body and the hands and feet barely discernible.
Generally the head alone is sculpted in the round, the arms and lower extremities only roughly carved out. The faces of the Mbete statues show a prominent forehead overhanging a hollow receding face with a rectangular mouth and broadly carved features, so that the original tree-trunk form is still visible. The shoulders are thrown forward, the arms slightly bent. Frequently, the hairdo, composed of horizontal loops, is parted by a central crest.
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