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Copper, brass, iron, wood
Height: 22 ¾ in. (58 cm.)
Han Coray (1880-1974), Zürich/Agnuzzo, Switzerland
Probably Paolo Morigi, Lugano, Switzerland
Jacques Kerchache Collection, Paris
Private Collection, acquired from the above
P. Morigi, Meisterwerke altafrikanischer Kultur aus der Sammlung Casa Coray, Agnuzzo, 1968, no. 78
Galleries Alain Bovis and Arte y Ritual (eds.), Hommage à Jacques Kerchache, Paris, 2006, fig.10
Paris, Galerie Alain Bovis/ Madrid, Arte y Ritual, Ana & Antonio Casanovas, Hommage à Jacques Kerchache, 16 June - 22 July 2006

Lot Essay


The Coray-Kerchache Kota is one of the major works of the genre and a jewel in the most celebrated Kota-Ndassa style. This figure was realized by a sculptor fully in control and at the apogee of his powers. The sophisticated interplay of metals and layered tonality is the mark of a master. Copper. Brass. Iron. The presence together of all three metals, and in large quantities demonstrates the wealth, prestige and power of this ancestor. The Kota artist was heralded as a thaumaturge – transforming through fire and ingenuity hard, precious metals into a supple, animate even, visual representation of a spirit. It is also dangerous work in both the play with literal fire and the capricious fire of representing the metaphysical world. The famous bombé style is particularly revered for the rounded forms simulates the act of exhaling. In the Coray-Kerchache Kota, the act of breathing is coupled with a very deeply carved mouth with jagged, serrated teeth, which is foreboding. The Kota carver carefully selected his materials. The reflective quality of the metals was symbolic of water, as the ancestral realm is perceived to be a watery place of dissolution. The hot, particularly red, copper of this Kota 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 lines and pattern to carry the viewer over the landscape of the figure and his wizened face. The most notable and unique quality is the medial ridge of raised chevrons which expand at each passage, and take us from the crescent, down the middle of the face, and finally the chin.


The character represented in the Kota is male, as are all of these figures conceived with a convex, or bombé, facial plane. In another notable element, the artist of the Coray-Kerchache Kota insisted on another measure of masculinity by adding a second mark of male gender: the ridge on the forefront, making it kind of a «supermale» figure. This «super masculinity» would not have translated into specific rituals or use. Rather, every figure created needed to be different from all others. They represented spirits whose purpose was to guard the relics, and as the same spirit could not guard two different sites, they, therefore, needed to be individualized. Giving this figure a super virile aspect satisfies the need for a unique character. The corpus is very small as only 25% of similar figures are «supermales». Another commonly used mechanism of individualization was the decor of the crescent, and here the artist used a rare motif in the form of a straight vertical line (Frederic Cloth, personal communication).


It is precisely this type of impressive sculpture that was at the heart of the Modern art dialogue happening in not only in Paris, but Berlin and New York, and inspired a new realm in modern sculpture and painting, chiefly Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907 and his Guitar of 1912. For a century now, the Kota Ndassa, so-called bombé, figures have left viewers spellbound when this style debuted as a star in Alfred Stieglitz’s landmark exhibition «Statuary in Wood by African Savages: The Root of Modern Art» at Gallery 291, in 1914 and later published by Stieglitz on the cover of his journal 291, Vol. 12, February 1916 (comp) (see Biro, in ‘African Art: New York and the Avant-Garde’ TAM special issue, no. 3, 2012). Carl Einstein, the German Modernist art historian who wrote the landmark survey on African art, Negerplastik, in 1915, owned such a figure which is now held in the Staatchliche Museen zu Berlin (III C 33268) (see LaGamma, Eternal Ancestors, 2007, number 82). Another Kota almost certainly by the same artist, with such clearly unique and perfectly executed details as the chevron-embossed medial ridge, and the dotted-oval motif at the neck, as well as the proportions and sensual play of tone and texture overall was in the collection of Dr. Maurice Girardin. His first works of African art were acquired in 1916, from Maurice de Vlaminck at the time he acquired several paintings by the artist. Dr. Girardin’s collection included works by all the major artists of the day, and all of whom were influenced by African art, including Derain, Braque, Picasso, Modigliani and Lipchitz. The gift of his collection to the Musée d’Art Moderne remains the core of their holdings, including his Kota-Ndassa figure (op. cit., no, 85).

To note two others, by the same hand, in addition to the Girardin and that illustrated by Perrois, ex. Morris Pinto, each in museum collections: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City [janiform], inv. No. 99-20; and Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris, inv. 70.2010.17, collected by Louis Laporte between 1911 and 1917.


Han Coray (1880-1974) was one of the greatest turn-of-the-century collectors of African art. A collector and dealer in Modern art, in 1917 his Zurich gallery organized the very first exhibition by the Dada movement, in which he also showed African art. Like his fellow Modernists at that moment, such as Paul Guillaume in Paris, for instance, he understood first the aesthetic power and range of African art, and celebrated it as art rather than ethnography. His 1917 exhibition caught the interest of the artistic avant-garde in Europe, in particular Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara and Hans Richter.

Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001) was one of the great 20th century lights in the field of African art. Like many great amateurs, the urge to collect was in his DNA ; and he bought his first work of African art in a flea market when he was only twelve. That acquisition was the start of a lifetime of collecting which led to some of the important African art discoveries of our modern times, most notably amongst the Fon and Mumuye cultures. His indelible mark would have been felt if nothing else for the important survey of 1988, which is still an ultimate reference. It is thanks to Kerchache’s work and writing, which carried on the proclamations of critics like Felix Fénéon from the early 20th century in questioning why African art was not in the Louvre, that he met the acquaintance of Jacques Chirac. Through his patronage, in 2000, this major achievement was finally realized when he selected Kerchache to organize the scenography and selection of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas for the Pavillon des Sessions in the Louvre.

By Louis Perrois

It was the publication of L’art Kota (1979) by Françoise and Alain Chaffin that revealed the stylistic importance of the reliquary figures of the Ndasa people from Haut-Ogooué province in Gabon and the neighbouring regions of Congo-Brazzaville. Grouped together in Group 16 between pages 199 and 213 are thirteen pieces of major importance, some of which were already recognised as masterpieces, such as the mbulu ngulu double face from the former G. de Miré collection (no. 112), another from the museum in Berlin previously owned by Carl Einstein prior to 1926 (no. 101), the one from the former Dr Girardin collection (no. 106), and that from the former Rasmussen collection (no. 113), as well as others that were previously unknown (nos. 102, 103, 104, 105, 107, 108, 109 and 110).

Amongst all the Kota reliquary figures, it was between Haut Ogooué province in Gabon, and the Zanaga, Komono and especially Mossendjo districts of Congo that the imposing wood and copper figures of the Ndasa and Wumbu (cf. Perrois, Kota, 2012, plates 39 to 45) were observed and collected in the first third of the 20th century. With an entirely convex, modelled and relatively 'realistic' face, full cheeks often marked with applied oblique iron bands, surmounted by a large, flat transverse crest and framed by truncated lateral pendant extensions or lateral extensions terminating in volutes, these effigies are sometimes double faced (mbulu-viti), with a convex side decorated with plates (symbolising the male ancestor) and a concave side with plain or embossed bands (symbolising femininity).
However, the majority of mbulu-ngulu (litt = reliquary basket with image) effigies from this southern section of the Kota area have only a single convex face the revese of which has no metal covering but is demarcated by an elongated diamond shape, like the remarkable and often-published masterpieces in the former collections of René Rasmussen (Chaffin, 1979, p. 333, no. 113, 64 cm and Eternal Ancestors, MET New York 2007, p. 265, no. 86) and Charles Ratton (Perrois, Arts du Gabon, 1979, ill. 185, 67 cm), considered to be amongst the most remarkable expressions of Kota sculptural art.
The reliquary figure from the former Gaston de Havenon collection (Perrois, Kota, 2012, plate 39) is a work with great intensity of expression and the 'quasi-dramatic' finish of a striated face with its mouth open as if to emit a cry, and its nose with nostrils pinched as if in death, beneath a high 'sugarloaf' forehead whose truncated lateral extensions suggest in passing the influence of the Obamba from Haut-Ogooué province (African Art, The de Havenon Collection catalogue, Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., , 1971, no. 191). In visual terms, it is reminiscent of the figure from the former collection of Carl Einstein, the celebrated art critic and author of Negerplastik (1915), donated in 1926 to the Museum für Völkerkunde/Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin (no. Inv. III C 33268, 63 cm), with perfectly arched supraorbital ridges highlighting the subtle relief of the almond-shaped eyes, which extend towards the temples and depicted with nailed pupils. The flattened nasal passages surmount a mouth open to display the teeth (engraved or embossed). The long, thin iron bands applied obliquely to the cheeks emphasise the modelling of the face and forehead.


As can be seen from the photographs taken by Swedish missionaries in the 1930s, the reliquary figures with lateral extensions terminating in volutes come from the Congolese part of the area occupied by the Kota, especially the region around Mossendjo. Some of them can be used for the purposes of comparison, like the 56 cm effigy from the former collection of Dr Girardin, which came from Charles Ratton in 1944 and was exhibited in Pau in 1961, then in Marseille in 1970, and again at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris in 1972. The highly convex oval face with 'sugarloaf' forehead and well-rounded cheeks is lavishly decorated with a broad headband and a narrow median headcrest with chevron motif. The lateral sections of the coiffure appear as a kind of striated wimple 'halo' that emphasises the face. The oblique cheek scarification is depicted by iron bands. Also of note is the wide open mouth with its filed teeth.
In the same style, but with significant economy of decoration, is the large (64 cm) reliquary figure brought back by Chef de Bataillon Foufé prior to 1914 (Ader-Tajan auction of 18 December 1990), which has an elongated oval face, a forehead bound by a broad iron band and oblique cheek bands following the line of the nose. This feature evokes the nose bone stripped of flesh in death, a recurring detail in this variant. The neck has a cross-hatched motif identical to that of Dr Girardin's figure, which is also found on the specimen from the former Pinto collection (71 cm). On that basis it may be reasonable to conjecture that over a very long period, and even as late as the 19th century, the Mossendjo region was home to production workshops in the habit of using certain very precise decorative motifs (forehead bands and cross-hatched necks, lateral wimple 'halos', crest banding with chevron motif, etc.).
The final comparison piece I would like to mention is a majestic 71 cm reliquary figure from the Merton Simpson and Morris Pinto collections (currently in a private collection in Geneva). Here we see the same structure with a large transverse crest, oval face well modelled in relief with lateral extensions terminating in volutes. Several details of this piece are interesting and significant, such as the forehead band with cross-hatched motif forming a frieze of diamonds each with a small central line, almond-shaped eyes with large pupils, mouth open to reveal filed teeth holding two shells, the 'halo' decoration of the lateral sections of the coiffure, and a chevron-motif band (which can also be seen on a figure from the Ross collection in New York and on another piece from the former Nash, Pinto and Arman collections – cf. Perrois, Kota, 2012, plates 46 and 48). The oblique cheek scarification is depicted by finely engraved strips with a cross-hatched motif, in the same way as the facial plates.


Exhibiting the customary structure used by the Ndasa of Congo-Brazzaville, this reliquary figure of impeccable quality and execution is majestic in its presence, and features a transverse crest with a restrained double-strip axial motif of small interlocking chevrons, a convex oval face with 'sugarloaf' forehead and full cheeks, and rounded lateral extensions terminating in volutes. Several details of its craftsmanship and decoration are significant, such as the longitudinal frontal crest with its chevron motif (echoing that of the figure from the former Dr Girardin collection), the 'halo' decoration either side of the face (similar to those referred to above), and likewise the open mouth with sharp teeth (referencing the importance of the owumu or 'life-force' in Ndasa beliefs (cf. Perrois, Kota, 2012, p. 36-37).

Here, in full control of his talents as an iron worker, the blacksmith/sculptor has adorned the face with a series of iron and copper bands (channelled by being lightly pinched to form a longitudinal relief) applied to the forehead, around the supraorbital ridges (in a non-parallel double arch to create a very attractive effect) and, obliquely, to the cheeks. The orbits of the eyes are set back from the forehead, the almond-shaped eyes formed with a pinched relief are very wide, extending across the full width of the face, and have iron staples as pupils. Two chevron marks on the forehead echo the motif of the axial crest. The neck has a copper plate decorated with a cross-hatched motif in which each diamond is marked with a central line in the same way as the Girardin and Foufé reliquaries.
It may therefore be reasonable to assume that these pieces were created in the same region (around Mossendjo) at a similar time (the mid or late 19th century) and, perhaps, by artists/blacksmiths who were in contact with each other.

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