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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Fang : Fang Wooden Ngil Mask
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Fang Wooden Ngil Mask - PF.1502 (LSO)
Origin: Gabon
Circa: 20 th Century AD

Collection: African Art
Style: Fang
Medium: Wood
Condition: Very Fine

Location: United States
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This impactive N’gil mask reflects one of the most fascinating and artistically-rewarding aspects of F’ang society. It is very striking, with a tall forehead, an elongated face cut in under the brows, and with a very elongated nose that divides the face in two. The chin is rounded, and divided in two vertically with an incised line that runs up to meet the septum of the nose. The eyes are rendered as tiny slits, giving a very empty-eyed appearance. It is unusually highly decorated, with a brown-coloured line running down the forehead to the (which is itself darker than the face), joined to arched brows and a line running around the perimeter of the face to where the mouth would be, to exaggerate the face’s heart-like shape. It also has a pierced septum, and ears that are picked out in the same, darker colour. The surface of the wood is worn, and the perimeter of the mask is surrounded by perforations that attest to it’s usage with a raffia costume.

The Fang are perhaps the best-known tribal group in Africa in terms of visual arts. Indeed, so much attention has been paid to their astoundingly accomplished artistic oeuvre that comparatively little is known of their cultural and historical background. Their current territory is Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, although they are known to have migrated to these areas over the past few centuries from their original heartland in the northeast. Their general métier is that of warriors, which partially explains the somewhat martial and fierce appearance of their figural works. Their success at conquest means that they are spread over a very wide area, consequently leading to a proliferation of artistic substyles under a recognizable general style. They also intermarried with local tribes such as the Betsi, the Ntumu and the Ngumba, giving rise to yet further diversity of art styles. They are connected by similar belief systems, especially including a heavy reliance upon ancestor worship to validate their actions and protect them from evil; this preoccupation has transferred itself to their material culture.

F’ang ancestor worship means the retention of ancestors’ remains inside specially made bark containers (reliquaries – nsekh byeri), which are protected by reliquary figures or heads known as “byeri”. This system probably evolved because of the high level of mobility practiced by early Fang populations, and so that ancestors’ remains could be continually present even during military campaigns. The spirits were appeased in a variety of ways, and were always kept close to the family whose ancestors they were. The figures were often decorated with copper and other materials, and many examples still exude the oils and other offerings with which they were endowed. The F’ang are also known for their everyday items – such as bells, gongs, tools and other objects – which are decorated with their distinctive artistic motifs. All of these objects played a major role in the development of western art styles in the 1920’s drive towards expressionism, cubism and primitivism in Paris, in the hands of such luminaries as Picasso, Modigliani and Brancusi.

They are particularly renowned for their mask usage, however, notably for the famous N’gil mask. The society responsible for judicial authority in the F’ang area was above all regional power, and use these simplistic polychrome masks to frighten confessions from the guilty and test the resolve of the innocent. While they look comparatively harmless today, white was always seen as a colour of death, or spirits, while the usual concealment of the mask from the public would heighten its impact as it was suddenly glimpsed by firelight, the identity of the wearer concealed beneath a raffia costume.

This striking mask is not the earliest example that we have seen. However, it is a striking and well-worn piece of Africana that would be at home in any collection or sophisticated domestic setting. - (PF.1502 (LSO))


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