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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Fang : Fang Gong
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Fang Gong - LSO.258
Origin: Gabon/Cameroon
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 28.5" (72.4cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: wood, metal
Condition: Extra Fine


Location: United States
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Description
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 artistic output. 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. In material terms, this system of worship means the retention of ancestors’ remains inside specially made bark containers (reliquaries – nsekh byeri in the local language), 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.

They were often decorated with copper and other materials, and many examples still exude the oils and other offerings with which they were endowed. It is figures such as these that started the 1920’s drive towards expressionism, cubism and primitivism in Paris, in the hands of such luminaries as Picasso, Modigliani and Brancusi. The Fang also used the masquerade system to appease spirits, mete out justice and exert social control over the population. Other artworks include the decoration of everyday prestige artifacts or ritual paraphernalia – such as bellows, spoons or gongs, in the current example – with figures similar to those of the Byeri in order to endow them with supernatural favour, and also for the aesthetic value of these intense, powerfully-carved figures.

The role of this artefact is uncertain. Given the care with which it was made, it evidently refers to prestige social groups, and it is unlikely to have had a purely secular role. It is most probably a ritual object with some magico-religious function, related to appeals for benediction, although its precise function must necessarily remain primarily speculative. The piece is both practical and elegant. The central body of the gong is of copper/bronze, with a fluted form that narrows towards the apex, which is decorated with a wooden anthropomorphic figurine. The body of the gong is approximately violin-shaped when viewed from the side, but smoothly conical when viewed from the front/back. The edges are crimped around the perimeter, and the body is decorated with small eminences at the most inferior aspect. The top of the gong is moulded in a ‘cap’ decorated with small eminences in high relief, topped by a throne-like arrangement upon which the figure is sitting. The figure is male, with solidly arranged geometric hips, legs and arms. The umbilicus is very pronounced. The arms are flexed at the elbow to hold an object (possible a flute, or a vessel) towards the head of the individual. The neck is very long and columnar, and is surmounted with a heart- shaped face with the hair swept back from the high, domed forehead. The eyes are inlaid with metal fragments, the nose small and squared, the mouth protuberant. The ears are placed high on the sides of the head, and the entire figure possesses a rich, glossy brown patina from long usage.

The shape of the head, the face, and the detailing leads to a tentative attribution to the Ngumba (Cameroonian) subgroup of the Fang, although the rarity of the piece makes this attribution uncertain. This is a beautiful piece of Fang material culture. - (LSO.258)

 

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