Fang-Ngumba Female Reliquary Statue, Equatorial Guinea
- wood, metal
Christie's, London, March 31, 1982, lot 94
Merton D. Simpson, New York, acquired at the above auction
Private Collection, USA
Lance and Roberta Entwistle, London
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired from the above on July 15, 1998
Gerard Berjonneau and Jean-Louis Sonnery, Rediscovered Masterpieces of African Art, Boulogne, 1987, p. 222, cat. fig. 200
Warren M. Robbins and Nancy I. Nooter, African Art in American Collections. Survey 1989, Washington and London, 1989, p. 327, fig. 846
Frank Herreman, Icons of Perfection: Figurative Sculpture from Africa, Saint Paul, 2006, p. 25, cat. 10
Frank Herreman, "Icons of Perfection: Some Thoughts on the Relationship between Aesthetics and Function in African Sculpture", Tribal Art, Vol. X, No. 3, Spring 2006, p. 93, fig. 5
In Southern Cameroon are two small groups, the Ngumba and the Mabea, which have been assimilated into the dominant Fang umbrella in terms of their culture, language, and religion (see Alexandre and Binet, 1958). These groups are of Maka (Mekae) descent, an ethnicity inhabiting the extreme south-east of Cameroon, at the very edge of Central Africa. The French geographer and linguist Idelette Dugast estimated the number of Ngumba and Mabea together at about 12,000 people in 1945, approximately 9,000 of which are Ngumba.
Beginning in the 18th century, the migrations of various Fang (also known as Pangwe) groups resulted in a series of cultural clashes. On the south bank of the Sanaga River, the confrontation between the larger Beti and Bulu groups resulted in the displacement and assimilation of smaller groups such as the Ngumba and the Mabea. These groups were divided and pushed westward, finally settling in the lower valley of the Lukundje (Lolodorf) for the Ngumba, and along the Atlantic coast (Kribi) for the Mabea. During the second half of the nineteenth-century, these two groups advanced further south, into Equatorial Guinea, where they came into contact with the Benga and the Fang-Ntumu of the Rio Muni region. The stylistic proximity seen between Fang sculpture from groups in Southern Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea is therefore not surprising given their geographic closeness and shared history of migrations.
The most notable collector of Ngumba sculpture was Georg Zenker, a botanist established in Lukundje near Kribi, who supplied many German museums between 1898 and 1902, including the Berlin museum (see Perrois 2006: 36).
The Fang-Ngumba Style
As I described in my 2006 study (Perrois 2006: pls. 8-11), “A series of statues have been regrouped under this name [Fang-Ngumba], which, based upon the provenances documented in the records of several German museums, were collected among Ngumba, Bane and sometimes Bulu populations of southwestern Cameroon, south of Sanaga and Nyong, especially in the area of Lolodorf (valley of Lokoundjé).”
During the 19th century, the Ngumba produced ancestral statuary of very recognizable characteristics: generally elongated proportions; a lengthened cylindrical body; a large spherical head; and stocky, short legs. The rather sinuous arms are held away from the body, showing defined musculature. Several distinct details are typical: streamlined, well-shaped shoulders; a protruding cylindrical naval tendon; the whistle of the initiated (called so) or the magic horn held by the male subjects, or an offering container held by the females; extensive use of brass attachments in the eyes, on the face and body, or as overlaid ornament (especially bracelets). The facial features are well-defined under a large domed forehead. Other characteristics include a concave face, with large circular or diamond-shaped eyes; a forward-projecting mouth, oval or rectangular, with pursed lips (sometimes in an almost tubular shape), opening to reveal teeth filed to points; and a short rectangular beard adorning the chin of the male figures.
The Kunin Fang-Ngumba Statue
The magnificent eyema byeri statue from the collection of Myron Kunin conforms perfectly to the canons of classic Ngumba sculpture produced in Rio Muni (Equatorial Guinea) and Southern Cameroon in the nineteenth century. Of an architectural structure which we may call "longiform", it is composed of a stylized set of volumes, decisively distant from anatomical realism. The head and coiffure are represented as an outsized mass atop a narrow elongated cylindrical body, with short, squat legs. This design is not accidental: the sculptor intended it as a symbolic visual code, representing the Fang hierarchy in which the volume of the head is always favored, a reminder of the absolute primacy of the ancestors, and the relative unimportance of the legs. The arms appear suspended from the body, which reinforces the delicacy of the subject. The perky conical breasts suggest the youth of the female ancestor and refer to the promise of fertility, and by extension of the future survival of the clan. The pronounced navel, an anatomical detail associated with childhood, refers at the same time to the fertility of mothers. Close observation of the frontal view reveals that the statue is slightly askew from its vertical axis, the body tilting to the right. This characteristic does not detract from the exceptional quality of the work, but is an artifact of the intrinsic shape of the block of wood chosen by the artist. Rather than abandon the work, the sculptor preferred to adapt the form of the sculpture, following the grain and shape of the wood. For another more pronounced instance of such an adaptation see a statue formerly in the collection of Jacques Kerchache, Paris (Kerchache 1998: 420, figs. 558-559).
Perhaps the most arresting feature of the Kunin statue is the neatly designed face, which features a large domed forehead, flattened cheeks, eyebrows raised and connecting to the nose, and eyes made of brass nails. The forward-projecting mouth is typical of Ngumba sculpture, and compares well with objects collected by Georg Zenker before 1900 for the Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin. The lips are formed into an oval cylinder revealing teeth with the incisors and upper canines filed to points. The coiffure is a representation of the crested hairpiece called nlô-ô-ngô, worn by all Fang Ngumba and Ntumu adults of Rio Muni and Southern Cameroon in the nineteenth-century.
The coiffure sits upon large ears of triangular shape and a frontal headband. Surrounding the skull, it flares and hangs down over the top of the neck. An arrangement of dome-headed nails punctuates the top, crest, and lower border of the coiffure. Each arm is decorated with a pair of brass bracelets. On the reverse, the area of the shoulder blades is defined by a flattened plane, punctuated by four nails. The surface of the statue, with a shining satin patina, seems to have been partially cleaned and coated. In some areas traces of an ancient crusty patina remain, accumulated in situ prior to cleaning. Some areas were once seething ritually-applied oil (on the shoulders, behind the abdomen, and under the chin).
Although the byeri statues of the Fang-Ngumba rank among the most significant works in the great western museums, it should be noted that they are rare in private collections. The Kunin Fang-Ngumba Statue, with its masterful architecture, delicate details, and dramatically studded coiffure, is an illustrious testament to the great traditions of the Northern Fang.
Louis Perrois, Saint-Gély-du-Fesc, August 2014