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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Fang : Fang Byeri Sculpture of a Seated Woman
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Fang Byeri Sculpture of a Seated Woman - PF.2864 (LSO)
Origin: Southern Gabon/Cameroon
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 24" (61.0cm) high x 8" (20.3cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Location: United States
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This striking piece is a reliquary figure from a F’ang funerary ensemble. It is a squat, powerful female figure with flexed legs, which would have been supported (or, more correctly, inserted into a reliquary basket) via the spike protruding from her posterior. Her body is sectorial, with defined feet, calves, thighs, shoulders, arms and torso/abdomen. Detasl is largely reduced beneath the neck, with nugatory breasts, incised lines denoting fingers and a prominent navel. The head is solid and oval, and is far more detailed, with a downturned mouth, metal inlaid eyes, sharp brows, a triangular nose and a highly ornate wing-like coiffure (further decorated with incised lines) that protrudes from the sides and rear of the head. The surface is matte, with an irregular encrusted brown patina. The wood is scarred above the eyes, and there are two superficial and stable age cracks through the head.

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 recognisable 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 entails 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.

This byeri figure is a striking example of F’ang art.

- (PF.2864 (LSO))


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