H x W x D: 34.4 x 9.9 x 9.4 cm (13 9/16 x 3 7/8 x 3 11/16 in.)
Oyem region, Gabon
Late 19th-early 20th century
European explorers and colonial officials began collecting Fang figures in the late 19th century. To the Fang, these sculptures were replaceable protective adjuncts that topped bark boxes containing ancestral bones, part of the Bieri ancestor cult. Ancestral bones, especially the skulls of male ancestors, were kept inside cylindrical boxes of bent and sewn bark. The most important relics were bones from the founder of a lineage or a village and bones from women whose exceptional spiritual powers were indicated by their many surviving children. Reliquary assemblages honored important ancestors who, if pleased, would respond when called upon for assistance in solving critical problems and dealing with matters important to the survival of the extended family and village. Such issues included deciding where to locate a village; curing illness or infertility; help with hunting and fishing or in warfare.
The figures vary greatly in regional styles, but most have characteristics that inspire somewhat contradictory comparisons with both infants and skulls. According to field reports, the Fang associate the relatively big heads, large eyes, and flexed legs with infants. The projecting umbilicus or navel, a feature that is widespread in African art, is found on many of these figures--clearly serving as a symbol of fertility linking the ancestors with the future existence of the group.
The artists who created these figures appear to have been interested not in carving specific portraits but in representing the ancestor through indications of gender, status and power. Details including carved crests and extensions refer to the plant-fiber wigs or headdresses once worn by the Fang. These wigs were elaborately ornamented with cowrie shells, glass beads, buttons and brass tacks. Brass or copper alloy--always associated with wealth and prestige because of its ties to long-distance trade, either within Africa or with Europe--appears as carved jewelry or as actual pieces such as the neck ring on this figure. The shining eyes convey spiritual power and provided added drama when the figures were used in rituals. Power can also be deduced from the pose of clasped hands across the torso, a gesture that, though not overtly threatening, suggests a degree of alertness and implies strong arms and chest. The pose also refers to hands holding a container.
The darkened surface that results from the ritual application of copal resin and vegetable oils is common on reliquary figures from northern Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. More unusual is the oil patina on this figure that has been coated with white and red pigments. This is perhaps a European addition, although red and white pigments were part of the "medicines"--power-enhancing substances--applied to the bones in reliquaries. The colors red and white are also commonly found on more recent Bwiti association objects among the Fang and neighboring groups.
Standing male figure with hands in front of torso, round brass eyes, necklet and heavy layers of white and red pigment over an oil patina.
Missionary, Oyem region, Gabon
Don Virgilio Perozzi, Sienna, Italy
Gallery d'Hautbarr (Eric de Kolb), New York, February 1969
Lawrence Gussman, New York, 1969 to 1998
Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., April 22, 2013-February 23, 2014; Fowler Museum at UCLA, University of California, Los Angeles, April 19-September 14, 2014; Bowdoin College Museum of Art, October 15, 2015-March 9, 2016
A Personal Journey: Central African Art from the Lawrence Gussman Collection, Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY, September 30, 2001-January 13, 2002; Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, OK, February 10-April 7, 2002; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 29, 2001-August 14, 2002
New Acquisitions: Gifts from the Lawrence Gussman Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., December 14, 1998-May 5, 1999
Milbourne, Karen E. 2013. Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa. New York: The Monacelli Press; Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 74-75, no. 53.
Moffett, Dana and Stephen P. Mellor. 2003. The Curator-Conservator Collaboration: Remembering Roy Sieber." African Arts 36 (2), p. 51, no. 13a-b.
Perrois, Louis. 1973. "La statuaire des Fang du Gabon." Arts d'Afrique Noire, p. 41, no. v.
Perrois, Louis. 1979. Arts du Gabon. Arnouville: Arts d' Afrique noire, p. 70, no. 48.
Perrois, Louis. 1992. Byeri Fang: Sculptures d'ancestres en Afrique. Marseille: Musees de Marseille.