Ambete Reliquary Figure with Rear Cavity Gabon
A rare example of the known form of Ambete reliquary figures, this carving exhibits all the known motifs. The face is flat with an arched brow with rectangular eyes and mouth. The teeth are showing, and the figure has a tall mohawk hairstyle. His hands are rested above his belly, and a rectangular cavity is carved into his back for the storage of magical items. The surface has a dark and varies patina which suggests significant age.
The Ambete, also known as Mbete, Mbede, Mbete and Mbeti, are an ethnic group residing in the Republic of Congo near the northern frontier of Gabon and northern Gabon itself. Due to the migratory nature of the people in this region, it is challenging to trace the precise history of the Mbete culture. However, certain aspects of their life are relatively well-known from an ethnological and sociological perspective.
The Ambete do not have a centralized political organization and instead practice ancestor worship as a significant part of their religious beliefs.
The Ambete are renowned for their carved sculptures, which come in three main types: heads, busts, and full figures. The full figures are believed to be associated with ancestor worship and served either as reliquaries or were placed alongside ancestral bones in baskets. The heads and busts were likely mounted on poles and displayed in front of the chief's house, possibly serving apotropaic (warding off evil) and emblematic purposes.
The sculptures typically have a dorsal (back) rectangular cavity or may even have a body shaped like a reliquary chest. In these instances, the head is usually sculpted in the round, while the arms and lower extremities are roughly carved. The faces of the Mbete statues exhibit a distinctive style, featuring a prominent forehead, a hollow and receding face, a rectangular mouth, and broadly carved features that still reveal the original tree-trunk form. The arms are often fixed to the body, and the hands and feet are minimally discernible. The shoulders are pushed forward, with slightly bent arms. The hairstyles often consist of horizontal loops, separated by a central crest.
The sculptures were used to house relics, which could be placed inside the statue. In such cases, the upper body of the statuette is elongated, and the back is hollowed out with a box-shaped cavity accessible through a small door held in place with a thread. It is believed that these cavities held the long bones of hunters who held significant roles in the tribal life of the Ambete people.