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Lot 49
Fang-Betsi Reliquary Head, Gabon
6 December 2016, 15:00 PST
Los Angeles

US$150,000 - US$200,000

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Fang-Betsi Reliquary Head, Gabon

Wood, brass, ritual oil
height 5 7/8in (14.9cm)

Private Collection, Belgium
Private Collection, New Zealand, acquired from the above in the early 1980s

'The Fang, famous in the 19th century for their determination if not their actual aggression toward other peoples of the region and their reserve toward Europeans, migrated southwest in the direction of the ocean, across the forests of southern Cameroon and northern Gabon. Explorers such as Reverend Trilles and Captain Roche (1901), telling of their expeditions in "Pahouin" country, noted the numerous and well-fortified Fang villages in Rio Muni and the Woleu-Ntem (modern name of northern Gabon region). One evening at a stopping place, recalls Reverend Trilles, the house that was provided for the Whites was furnished in the back with a sort of shelf holding a large sewn bark box and a couple of "crudely fashioned" wooden figures. No doubt they had been placed in a house of the lineage chief, furnishing the Byeri corner.

The Fang (and Fang styles) extend from the Sanaga River to the Cameroon River in the north and to the Ogowe River in Gabon in the south. The western and eastern boundaries are respectively formed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Ivindo River, going towards the Congo. They are divided into three large, principal groups which are in the north, the Beti (primarily Eton and Ewondo in the Yaunde region); in the center, the Bulu (in southern Cameroon); in the south from the coast of rio Muni to the Ivindo, the Fang proper who inhabit the artistic center as one understands it.' (Louis Perrios, Ancestral Art of Gabon, 1985, p. 136-36)

"The Fang were among the most feared warriors and cannibals in all of Africa, yet the heads and figures they carved for their ancestor cult are classical examples of the serene beauty of which African art is capable...According to Louis Perrois, the patina is a resinous mixture of palm oil (widely used in West Africa) and copal. Once the wood is impregnated thoroughly with this mixture, it exudes oil indefinitely. Throughout the vast Fang area, such figures are both evocations of the dead and magical protectors of the ancestral bones. The ancestor's skull and some of his small bones were kept in boxes made of bark and the statue [and heads] were attached to the lids with vines." (Fagg, William, African Majesty, 1981, p. 142)

Perrois (ibid, p. 143) notes: 'G. Tessmann thought that byeri reliquary heads antedated the figures, the latter being only an evolution from a preexistent style. J. Fernandez suggests that during their migration, the Fang preferred to transport wooden heads with their relics rather than entire figures which would have appeared concomitantly with the relative sedentarization of the Fang in the 19th century. These viewpoints are not confirmed by the data, however. Although wooden objects are never very old in tropical Africa due to the environmental constraints (especially xylophagous insects and inclement weather), many of the Byeri heads as well as the figures were found between 1880 and 1920. It is therefore likely that these two forms, the "head alone" and "man with feet" (bust or entire figure), coexisted.'

While byeri heads were never intended to depict individuals, it was critical for the Fang artist to capture the essence of a living being. In the present example, the full rounded head and chin contrast with the pointed nose. At the back of the head the hair is divided into three tresses, one that extends down the back, the other two which frame the face when viewed frontally. The eyes of brass, which would glow with reflection of nightly fires, are deeply set below arching brows that gracefully curve down the length of the nose. These qualities, together with the smooth, heart-shaped face with the subtle reflective qualities of the ritual oil, convincingly capture the intrinsic and indispensable quality of a now-deceased ancestor.

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