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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Fang : Fang Wooden Sculpture of a Head
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Fang Wooden Sculpture of a Head - PF.3170 (LSO)
Origin: Southern Gabon/Cameroon
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 16.25" (41.3cm) high x 6" (15.2cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Location: United States
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This interesting object was carved by the F’ang people of Gabon. It has the appearance of a Byeri figure, which were used to sanctify the reliquary baskets containing the bones of revered ancestors. It is however unusual in that it has a flat base rather than a spike, and is also atypical in terms of facial morphology. The base is integral and round, with a plain column supporting a square-jawed head with a somewhat surprised expression and an ornate crested coiffure. The face is dished when compared to the rounded forehead and the jaw, and is decorated with round eyes, a broad, flat nose and a slightly downturned, thin-lipped mouth. The ears are large and protuberant. The function of the piece is uncertain, and it may have been made for standard display rather than a religious motivation.

The Fang are perhaps the best-known tribal group in Africa in terms of visual arts. 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 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, and 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 is an unusual work by a F’ang artist, and a worthy addition to any collection.

- (PF.3170 (LSO))


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