Sculpture: Fang - Part 4 - African Cultures - With data

Posted by Ricardo Marcenaro | Posted in | Posted on 22:12




Female Post Torso, both hands over navel
Female Seated Byeri Figure, both hands together above navel
Female Shrine Figure Head with raffia dress
Female Shrine Figure Head with raffia dress 
Harp with four Heads
 Large Articulated Male Figure, the Head with Feather Headdress
Large Female Bieri Figure, both hands together over the navel  

Large Female Figure, hands on knees, repairs on right side, metal band on left ankle

For the antiquity or not of the pieces, I does not issue opinions.
Por la antigüedad o no de las piezas, yo no emito dictámenes.
Ricardo Marcenaro

Thanks To
 For images and data
 Fang sculpture

About Fang Sculpture

Fang sculpture - the heads and the figures - is associated with an ancestor cult referred to as byeri or bieri. The term "byeri" refers to both the solo heads or figures which guard the funerary relics - craniums and bones - of important ancestors. Byeri sculptures were mounted on the top of bark boxes, baskets or bundles containing human relics. They were "consulted" before undertaking any important action, such as an important journey, a battle, the placement of a village or house, finding a wife, choice of ground for agriculture, curing of sickness and before starting a hunt.

Several connoisseurs of West African art have attempted to categorize Fang sculpture. G. Tessman (1913) took the view that Fang reliquary heads predate the statues. J. Fernandez (1974) suggested that, when Fang tribes were displaced, they preferred to travel with reliquary heads rather than statues (which were not recorded prior to the 19th century).

The most thorough study of Fang art and culture was done by the French scholar Louis Perrois. Between 1965 and 1975 he lived in Gabon, researching and publishing on the Fang and related tribes. His thesis "La Statuaire Fang, Gabon" (Paris, 1972) is the definitive work on the subject. In 1992 he curated the definitive exhibition of Fang sculpture at the Marseille Museum, bringing together some 60 fine examples from museum and private collections in France, Germany, America, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Sweden, published in a lavish volume as "Byeri Fang: Sculptures d'Ancetres en Afrique" (Marseille, 1992).

One of the main collectors of West African art was Josef Mueller of Geneva. He was also a major collector of paintings by modern masters such as Cezanne, Miro, Ernst and many others. Between 1929 and 1942 he acquired a considerable number of fine items from Gabon, including many Fang sculptures and masks. The best, which are in the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, have been published by Perrois as "Art Ancestral du Gabon" (Geneva, 1985).

Perrois estimates between 500 and 600 genuine traditional Fang sculptures exist in collections and museums throughout the world. In his thesis he documents 272 of them, of which about 40 are solo heads. He says neither Tessman nor Fernandez are entirely correct about the relationship of the Fang reliquary heads to the statues, noting that between 1880 and 1920, many solo "byeri" heads have been found associated together with statues. Perrois believes the heads and statues "coexisted" together.

Perrois states "in general, the heads are the work of the Southern Fang", from the Betsí region (Okano valley). He categorizes them into three distinctive types, according to the hairstyle; the "helmet-wig" with multiple plaits (ekuma), the "helmet" with a central crest (nlo-o-ngo) and the "transverse chignon".

Perrois recognizes two principle Fang "byeri" statue styles: the Northern (in which the statues are elongated) and that of the South (in which they are foreshortened). He also defines several different sub-styles, categorizing the Northern style into:

Ngoumba (South Cameroon)
Mabéa (coast of S. Cameroon)
Ntoumou (extreme S. Cameroon, N. E. Guinea and North Gabon)

and the Southern style into the following types:

Betsí (Okano valley)
Nzaman-betsi ("Okano", Ogooué, Abanga)
Mvaï (Ntem valley)
Okak (Guinea)

Writing in the Fang section in the catalog of the major exhibition "Africa: The Art of a Continent", which opened at London's Royal Academy of Arts in October 1995 and at New York's Guggenheim Museum in June 1996, Perrois speculates:

"The delicacy of these carvings continues to surprise; they were produced in a village environment by people who had been constantly on the move since the beginning of the 19th century. This makes one wonder if the Fang statuary first discovered at the end of the 19th century is not the culmination of a long tradition, dating back to before the last migration of groups from the Eastern savannas of Cameroon and central Africa."

Fang wood sculptors commonly also worked with metal and came from long established lineage's of sacred object makers. Wood used for carving Fang reliquary statues was carefully selected and was only worked by artisans who were ceremonially "purified", who followed certain ritual procedures and who abstained from sex during the period of fabrication. Several different woods were used, categorized by Perrois as "light-colored" or "dark-colored".

Following the completion of the sculptural process, a byeri image was darkened and immersed in various medicinal or "magical" oils for several weeks, which "nourished" and "empowered" it. Palm oil, copal resins, black coloration (mevina) and other substances created the unique patina of Fang sculpture, which was further enhanced by sacrificial oblations. When a byeri was consulted, blood sacrifice was generally made over the cranial relics which it guarded.

Byeri were generally consulted after the use of narcotic plant products. "Alan", also known as "malan", is the main drug used by initiates into the byeri cult. According to J. Fernandez, "the root of the alan bush is ground up, powdered, dried and consumed while sitting exposed to the morning and midday sun". Fernandez says the purpose of this drug's use is to "break open the head (akwia nlo)", so as to connect with the spiritual realms. Alan reputedly has hallucinogenic, stimulating and aphrodisiac properties. Fernandez did an extensive study of drug use among the Fang and related tribes. He documents the use of four types of narcotics that "enter into their cult rituals". These are "alan" - Alchornea floribunda; "eboka" - Tabernanthe iboga, which has ibogaine as its main alkaloid; "ayan beyem" - Elaeophorbia drupifera; and "beyama" - Cannabis.

Fernandez writes that "the latex of ayan beyem was employed in the ancestral cult among the Fang when the ingestion of malan was slow in showing effect. A parrot's red tail feather dipped in the mixture was brushed across the eyeballs. The latex appears to affect the optical nerves, producing bizarre visual states." He also writes that cults in Southern Gabon mix malan with eboka. Fernandez gives a lot of data on the connected bwiti cult which primarily uses the drug eboka. Followed mainly by the interrelated Tsogo or "Mitsogho" tribe of Gabon, according to him this is "a night cult of the female principle of the universe".

Fang reliquary boxes were termed "nsekh byeri", solo head sculptures "nlo byeri", statues "eyema byeri" and the relic bones "ekokwe nlo". Very few Fang statues "intact" on reliquary containers are in Western collections. Only a few have been photographed in place. With rare exceptions, Fang heads have been removed from their relic caskets, bundles or baskets before finding their way to the West.

By 1966, when it was finally dispersed at a Sotheby's auction, the famous African art collection formed by Helena Rubinstein included thirteen Fang "byeri" reliquary guardian heads and figures. Several of these have since been resold at record-breaking prices.

Ricardo Marcenaro
Sculptures – Esculturas

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