By Louis Perrois
The early Ngil masks of the Fang people of Gabon, that is, the examples which were collected at the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, are among the rarest and most highly celebrated of all African artworks. Carved of wood and embellished with its well-preserved original fiber collar, the present Fang Ngil Mask formerly in the collection of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan epitomizes the aura of enigmatic majesty for which these masks are famous.
The Aga Khan Fang Mask is among the oldest Fang Ngil masks known, and is one of the last of the early examples to remain in private hands. The corpus of these masks comprises ten known examples, including:
Fang Ngil Mask, Denver Art Museum inv. no. “1942.443”, collected by Albert L. Bennett in 1890 near Kango, Gabon. Height: 56 cm.
Fang Ngil Mask, Ethnologisches Museum Berlin-Dahlem, inv. no. “III C 6000”, collected in 1895 in British southern Cameroon. Height: 78 cm.
Fang Ngil Mask, Musée du quai Branly, Paris, inv. no. “M.H. 65.104.1”, collected before 1895. Height: 70 cm.
Fang Ngil Mask formerly in the collections of Pierre and Claude Vérité, Paris. Height: 48 cm.
Fang Ngil Mask formerly in the collection of Gustave and Franyo Schindler, New York (LaGamma 2007: 301). Height: 63.5 cm.
Fang Ngil Mask, Musée Dapper, Paris, inv. no. “2657”. Height 51 cm.
With its particularly elongated structure made up of pure geometric forms, this mask displays the classic traits of the traditional Fang sculptural canon of equatorial Africa. The Aga Khan Fang Ngil Mask is most closely related to the masks in Denver and Berlin, which are of the oldest type. In these examples volumes project into space from a vertical plane with a gentle forward tilt, from the rounded relief of the forehead to the elongated concave sweep of the eyes and cheeks. By comparison with the other more deeply-modeled examples, such as the Vérité Mask, with its accentuated concave and convex forms, these older masks seem almost as relief sculptures, certainly conceived to be seen from the front, emerging from darkness. All Ngil masks were once coated with kaolin, sometimes thickly encrusted, but usually since lost. This white color is the emblem of the spirit world.
The principle anatomical element in these representations is the nose, which is rendered in a thin and dramatically elongated form. This hypertrophied deformation evokes the mask’s subject, a monstrous and terrifying entity, Ngil: an inquisitor-spirit that administered justice in the Fang community. On either side of this aquiline nose, small eyes with fine eyelids project a stern gaze. Another feature of this mask is the rendering of the cheeks, which terminate in obliquely canted cheekbones, angular and symmetrical, beside the end of the nose. The mouth forms a kind of stylized, angularly-rendered muzzle.
The ornamentation on the mask is minimal, and consists of eyebrows rendered as rounded arches, and an axial line down the center of the forehead, incised with hot metal and recalling the traditional scarifications characteristic of the Fang in the 19th century (see Tessmann 1913: 265, Abb. 218).
The Aga Khan Fang Ngil Mask was collected in 1917, and as mentioned, is closely related to the two other examples in Denver and Berlin which are considered the oldest in the corpus. Additional useful comparisons can be made with several other masks in institutional and private collections: for example an Ngil mask in Munich (Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, inv. no. “14-67-1”), which was collected in 1914 by K. Ritter in German southern Cameroon, in the region of the Bulu d'Ebolowa; this face mask is 35 centimeters in height, with white surface and lines and volumes which express perfect solemnity, and curiously devoid of a mouth (see Kecskési 1982: 254, no. 285).
Worthy of note is the fact that the axial line pattern is found on several other old Fang masks, such as the mask formerly in the Vérité Collection, Paris (Enchères Rive Gauche, Paris, June 17-18, 2006, lot 193) and the mask in the Musée d’ethnographie in Geneva, collected in 1905 by the colonial administrator François Coppier (previously in the collection of the painter Emile Chambon).
Among the Fang of southern Cameroon (the Beti and Bulu Ngumba groups) and northern Gabon (the Ntumu and Betsi groups), the Byeri society practiced a system of worship involving ancestral relics, while the Ngil rites instead utilized human bones derived from anonymous outsiders such as prisoners of war or slaves, in specific practices intended to combat malicious witchcraft (see Tessman 1913). This important sacrament of social regulation and customary law, which has been compared to a sort of "inquisition", was observed in situ in the early 1900s by Father Henri Trilles (CSSP) during his visits to rural regions of Gabon, and again soon thereafter by the German ethnographer Günther Tessman, in Rio Muni. These ceremonies involved spectacular dances, and the nocturnal intervention of a terrifying mask in the image of a long, pale face. The role of this character was to discover potentially hidden sorcerers in the villages, and to judge and punish them. As time went on, however, the brutal interventions of the Ngil militias began to cause great unrest in the villages where they were intended to promote peace. They were consequently forbidden by the colonial authorities and religious missions in the period between 1910 and 1920 (depending upon the region). This prohibition caused the gradual disappearance of the large Fang Ngil masks.
One must acknowledge that the Fang Ngil Masks, today keenly sought after as indispensable keystones of the best collections of African art, were anything but mundane ritual accessories, despite their astonishingly pure forms, minimalist ornament, and sublime, majestic expressions. These were integral emblems of a belief system which feared the power of spirits of the beyond, and promoted a hope to defeat death and evil, especially those caused by the malicious sorcery. These ancient masks evoke Ngil as the keeper of the balance between living and the dead. The Aga Khan Fang Ngil Mask is an extremely rare and beautiful example.
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