Our specialist Susan Kloman examines the Coray-Kerchache Kota, to be sold in our Origins: Masterworks of African & Oceanic Art auction on 17 May in New York
The Coray-Kerchache Kota is one of the major works of Gabonese sculpture and a jewel in the celebrated Kota-Ndassa style. According to Frederic Cloth, the co-curator of the landmark exhibition KOTA: Digital Excavations in African Art at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, the character represented in this type of sculpture is male, as are all Kota conceived with a convex, or bombé, face.
Apparently, the artist of the Coray-Kerchache Kota insisted on adding a second mark of masculinity; the ridge on the forefront, making this a kind of ‘superman’ figure.
This super-masculinity would not have translated into specific ritual use. Rather, it would have served to individualise the figure. These sculptures where created by the Kota people of Gabon to represent spirits whose purpose was to guard ancestral relics, and as the same spirit could not guard two different sites, they needed to be individualised. Giving this figure a virile aspect satisfies the need for a unique character: only 25% of similar figures are ‘supermales’.
Another distinguishing feature of the Coray-Kerchache Kota is the sophisticated interplay of metals: copper, brass and iron work together to create a layered tonality. The presence of all three metals, and in such large quantities, demonstrates the wealth, prestige and power of the ancestor whose relics this figure was to guard.
The sculptor of this Kota carefully selected his materials. The reflective quality of the metals was symbolic of water, as the ancestral realm was perceived to be a watery place of dissolution. The hot, red colour of the copper was surely no accident and likely represents the sun melting into the water as in the most brilliant of sunsets.
Technically advanced, this master sculptor uses the bombé style, particularly revered for its rounded forms which simulate the act of breathing. In the Coray-Kerchache Kota, this breathing is coupled with a very deeply carved mouth with jagged, serrated teeth, which creates a sense of foreboding.
Lines and patterns carry the viewer’s gaze over the figure and his wizened face. The most notable and unique quality is the medial ridge of raised chevrons which take us from the crescent, down the middle of the face, and finally the chin. This figure was realised by a sculptor at the apogee of his powers.