Fang-Ntumu Male Reliquary Statue (eyema byeri), Northern Gabon
Private Collection, Toronto, by descent from the above
Waddington's, Toronto, Decorative Arts, November 22-25, 2005, lot 1235
William Jamieson, Toronto, acquired at the above auction
Christie's, London, private sale, January 2006
Christine Valluet and Yann Ferrandin, Paris
John and Rita Giltsoff, London, acquired from the above on September 10, 2006
By Louis Perrois
This statue of a male ancestor is a beautiful example of the great ritual sculpture of the Fang peoples of equatorial Africa. Brought to Europe in the early 20th century (perhaps by the same purveyors as those that supplied the young dealer Paul Guillaume), it dates from the second half of the 19th century at the latest, judging by the classic style, superior quality, and sumptuous thick black patina. The surface seethes ritually-applied palm oil in some places, attesting to the long period of time during which this object was in use. Represented is a nude ancestor, of virile masculinity, shown in the meditative position of a mature man, seated in majesty atop the reliquary ensemble containing ancestral relics. As is frequently the case with such statues, the statue has been dissociated from its reliquary context, certainly at the time of collection. It was probably deliberately de-activated by the removal of the offering cup, and truncated at the forearms and hands which held it, as this was a particularly sacred locus of the image which would have contained magical material.
This impressive statue was in the collection of the Canadian Dr. Herschel Freeman, of Toronto, but must have arrived in Europe before the Second World War: the base was created by the Japanese wood artist Kichizô Inagaki (1876-1951), who was active in Paris in the 1910s-1930s.
Stylistically, the composition is of generally elongated form with the stretched volumes characteristic of the Fang-Ntumu subgroup of northern Gabon. From both the front and profile, the perfectly cylindrical trunk extends into a neck of the same diameter, giving the statue a hieratic, majestic disposition. This axial volume is proportionally half the height of the sculpture. This measured geometric stylization is accompanied by surfaces hewn with great care, perfectly polished, and subtly-modeled anatomical details, including broad muscular shoulders, defined pectorals, and fleshy arms held outward from the body with segmented biceps of typical style. The sculptor, in full control of the wood medium, departs slightly from the strict canons of Fang sculptural form, and in doing so accomplishes a more soft and natural posture. The specific positioning of the head at a slightly oblique angle, quite apparent when seen in profile, contributes to the character of the figure, which is pensive and introspective.
In the lower part of the body, the abdomen is punctuated with a prominent projecting cylindrical navel, a symbolic reminder of the solidarity of generations, and the eyema byeri being both the evocation of an old man and of a child.
The sex is explicitly specified, making it clear that this is a male founder of the ancestral lineage. He is squarely seated, with short, massive thighs that round into the haunches and extended down to muscular vertical calves. The feet are missing.
The back is engraved with a long U-shaped groove which divides the cylindrical trunk longitudinally, from the neck at the base of the coiffure downward, and dividing the mass of the thighs. Note the presence of a set of notches along the back, probably scarified marks of symbolic significance. Under the buttocks extends the post for attachment to the reliquary basket (nsekh byeri, for discussion cf. Perrois 1979: 40 et. seq.).
The head is positioned tilted slightly forward, and is of remarkable quality, made up of a perfectly balanced harmony of forms: a large forehead of a perfect quarter-sphere with a beautifully pure, polished surface, slightly concave cheeks, and a coiffure rising to a central crest and falling back upon the neck. Under the rounded forehead, brows in slight relief connect to the concavity of the cheeks on either side of a relatively long nose (note the ritually-removed wood scrapings from the edge and base of the nose, which were taken for use in formulating magic medications). Under the nose the mouth forms a kind of muzzle, streamlined with lips slightly open, the surface worn from ritual handling.
The wide open eyes feature deeply excavated pupils, and are encircled by eyelids and the lines of old age, separating them from the smooth cheeks of either side of the nose.
The restrained coiffure is of the nlô-ô-ngô type, with a central ridge flanked by two flat chignons; these bear engraved decoration of thin oblique lines representing braids. The thin front band which forms the border of the coiffure extends on either side into semicircular motifs evoking the ears. Two holes, one in the center of the forehead at the edge of the coiffure, and another running laterally through the center of the central crest: to these were previously attached tufts of feathers from a large bird (a touraco or osprey). On the back, the coiffure curves down and hangs over the back of the neck above the shoulders.
As a point of reference and comparison, we may consider, among other examples, the remarkable Ntumu statue from the collection of Roland Tual, which was published by Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro in their 1929 book, La Sculpture Nègre Primitive (figure 28, “Gabon, Idole"). The Tual Fang Ntumu displays the same proportions and volumes as the present figure, with rounded shoulders, arms held across the chest with the hands supporting an offering cup, explicitly-rendered sex, and massive legs. The rendering of the face is also comparable, with large eyes, wide eyelids, domed forehead, and crested coiffure. Both objects were collected about the same time, probably in the same region of northern Gabon.
The present statue from the collection of Dr. Hershall Freeman is the work of a master Fang-Ntumu sculptor from 19th century northern Gabon, and expresses the comprehensive talent of its skilled creator, in both the balanced overall design as well as the exquisite finishing of the details. This unique masterpiece transcends geography, time, and cultural difference, presenting an eternal image of an ancestor whose wrinkled face quietly speaks of his maturity and wisdom, while his formidable body testifies to his strength and reproductive capacity, remembering the grandeur and humanism of the Fang of Equatorial Africa.