Socle de Kichizo Inagaki (1876-1951)
Whilst drawing on the artistic traditions which, ovetime, have shaped the Fang "styles" specific to each area, some master sculptors delivered a highly personal vision of the overarching theme of ancestor representation.
From a morphological and stylistic point of view, the offered figure is part of the sculptural tradition of North Gabon, specifically that of the Ntumu, the main source and centre of influence in Fang art. (James W. Fernandez, ‘Principles of Opposition and Vitality in Fang Aesthetics’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1966, p. 53-66). However the canons of this classic style - slender torso, squat lower limbs with volumes that absorb depth, and full, rounded features with a quarter-sphere forehead overhanging a hollowed-out "heart-shaped" face - are subtly disrupted here by the vision and talent of the sculptor. Escaping the gestural conventions of the Fang, the slightly bent arms pull apart from the body as if setting into motion. The right hand clasps a short stick, an attribute seldom represented in Fang statuary (cf. Falgayrettes-Leveau, Gabon, Présente des esprits, 2006, p. 117), which has been interpreted as a means of protection (Perrois, La statuaire fan. Gabon, 1972, p. 59).
A masterpiece of balance in the tension of the curves and counter-curves, the refinement of the modelling and the force of the converging lines, the head is a dramatic testament to the significance which it bears for the Fang, a sign of both vitality and of social power. Here, the head culminates in the elegance of the helmet-coiffure, which stretches down the neck, highlighted by the median strip delicately engraved with six rows of cowries. The talent of the artist in transcending archetypal canons and containing in one still figure the imperious presence of the ancestor, is compounded by the singular details, which are the artist's own invention, such as the short, jutting penis, which mirrors the protruding navel, adorned with a brass circle.
The oozing black patina enhances the solemnity of the work and together with the traces of micro-clippings demonstrates the figure's magical-religious role as an honoured ancestor asked to watch over his descendants. The byeri was "the protector of the living world. He favoured all its endeavours. He made women fertile, gave wealth, ensured the success of military expeditions and hunting parties, protected warriors and watched over individuals. […] Fang society was inconceivable without the byeri. There was no religious reality greater than him" (Nguema-Obam, Aspects de la religion fang, 1983, p. 42).
This effigy from the Viviane de Witt Collection beautifully illustrates the "classicism" of Fang art, defined in 1915 by Carl Einstein as "pure artistic vision" (Negerplastik, 1915; Les arts d’Afrique, 2015, p. 33). Rendered sublime by the vision and virtuosity of the artist, the offered figure combines feelings of strength and sensitivity, and great archaism with the modernity of the artist's invention.
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