When the avant-garde artists "discovered" African art at the turn of the 20th century, Fang statuary immediately stood out as the most accomplished form of African sculpture. However, on the eve of the First World War Fang sculpture was rare in Europe, particularly in comparison with the large number of objects which had been brought back from the coastal regions of French West Africa, most notably Côte d'Ivoire. Of the Fang figures in Europe at that time, all were from styles attributed to the Fang groups settled in the coastal area around the equator, in the region then known as Süd-Kamerun. Celebrated under the name "Pahouin" by the avant-garde, this early group of Fang ancestor figures already contained the dozen figures which comprise the smallest and most distinctive known corpus of Fang sculpture – that of the Fang-Mabea. The Fénéon Fang figure is the apotheosis of this style. An archetype of African sculpture, the masterful execution and sculptural quality of this masterpiece show the hand of a master sculptor whose artistic individuality draws upon a truly unique historical, religious, and stylistic context.

The History of the Mabea, from the Coast of Southern Cameroon

The Mabea are part of the larger Beti-Fang group of Southern Cameroon. Like the neighbouring Ngumba group, who are also ethnically related to the Maka (the Mekae, an ethnic group from south-eastern Cameroon, bordering Central Africa), the Mabea seem to have been "Pahouinised" from a cultural, linguistic and religious point of view (cf. Alexandre & Binet, 1958). The Maka and Mabea lived 700 km apart, yet shared a very specific language, distinct from that of the Fang Ntumu and the Bulu, who predominantly inhabited the same area. In the early 20thcentury, this linguistic particularity was noted by German travellers such as G. Tessmann (cfDie Pangwe, 1913, vol. I, pp. 30-33). Around 1945, the geographer and linguist Idelette Dugast placed the Ngumba and Mabea population at approximately 12,000 in number, of which fewer than 3,000 were Mabea, giving immediate insight into the limited corpus of Mabea sculpture.

Répartition des styles et variantes de la statuaire des différents groupes Fang. DR

From the 18th century onwards, the movements of the various "Beti-Fang/Pangwe" groups created a series of cultural shocks, causing upheaval amongst the ethnic groups previously settled in the path of their various migration patterns. The Maka were divided by the various westerly and south-westerly movements of the Beti-Fang. Some Maka and Mabea were gradually pushed westward and towards the sea, finally stopping, in the case of the current Ngumba populations, in the lower valley of the Lukundje (Lolodorf), and in the case of the Mabea, along the Atlantic coast – from Kribi (Cameroon) to Bata (coast of the Rio Muni, Equatorial Guinea), where they also became known under the name "Pamues playeros" in the Spanish ethnographic literature.

Localisation des Ngumba (vers Lolodorf) et des Mabea (vers Kribi et la côte plus au sud) au sud-ouest du Cameroun (carte I. Dugast, 1949). DR

During these migratory movements, and over the two or three centuries of contacts and cultural exchanges that ensued, the Maka and Mabea (who shared the same Bantu origin), came to take part both in the initiation rituals of theSo and in the cult of byeri ancestors. The preservation of the remains of prominent figures within the community was complemented by the carving of wooden figures as "guardians" for shrines, and sometimes as ritual marionettes.

From the late 19th century, during the first explorations of the Cameroon hinterland, up until 1916, the Southern Region of Cameroon was under German rule (Süd-Kamerun). During this period the first Ngumba and Mabea figures came to Europe. Mabea statuary, which is by far the rarest to our knowledge, was all brought back by German collectors, such as Georg Zenker in the 1900s, or occasionally by British collectors. 

Mabea Statuary: From the Recognition of a Corpus to the Identification of Master Carvers

Among the few Fang ("Pahouin") figures known in Europe before the First World War, and celebrated by members of the Avant-Garde, almost all came from the coastal area of Süd-Kamerun. Mabea figures, which now make up the most limited and individual corpus within Fang statuary, were immediately acquired by German museums (for instance the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde) or entered the English and Parisian market. There are only a dozen Mabea figures known from this period.

Statue, Fang Mabea, Cameroun, 62 cm, Museum of World Culture, Göteborg. DR

The complex methods of acquiring Mabea statuary in Africa during this early period, combined with their very individual style, hampered the identification of the specific Mabea style. In 1915, when Carl Einstein first reproduced a Mabea figure in Negerplastik (a female effigy now in the Musée du quai Branly, inv. 71.1977.52.1 ; ex. collections Joseph Brummer and Frank Burty Haviland), it appeared, like the other 119 illustrations dotting the book, without a caption. In 1916, when Marius de Zayas published the same figure inAfrican Negro Art: its influence in Modern Art, pl. 11, the caption gave its origin as "Ivory Coast". It was not until the Paris auction catalogue of 22 June 1936 that the same figure was designated by Charles Ratton, the auction expert, as "Pahouin", notwithstanding its country of origin once again being erroneously stated, this time as "Gabon".

Although the Mabea statues collected by Zenner around 1900, now in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, as well as those presented by the English dealer W. D. Webster in a 1901 catalogue, all have an accurate statement of provenance, there is considerable variety in the quality of the carving. The very limited and striking corpus thus testifies to the evolution of a particular style over a period of two or three centuries, and to the existence of prodigious master carvers.

With the most remarkable Mabea statuary tending towards realism in the details (the Fénéon figure, and the examples in the Musée du Quai Branly, the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, the Reiss-Museum, Mannheim, the Museum für Völkerkunde, Hamburg, as well as the figure published by Dapper in 1991) the structure of the outlines and the detailing of the head fall within the realm of idealized naturalism. This carving style is a break from the usual stylized sculpture of other Fang groups (Ngumba, Ntumu, Betsi, Okak-Meke, Mvaï), which typically favour more radical formal stylization. The balance between the large head and broad, rounded shoulders combines with the muscular contours of the chest in male representations and the emphasis on the styling of the breasts in female figures. Whether youthful or flattened and elongated, the breasts are presumably a mark of either a "retrospective" symbolism (paying tribute to a female ancestor with several descendants, who would look after her lineage from the world of the dead), or a "prospective" one (evoking the fertility hoped for in young women in order to perpetuate the family). Despite the naturalistic appearance, the slender torso with its narrow diameter is enhanced by the oversized forearms and the hands with outstretched fingers resting on the thighs. In each case the expressive power of the face strikes the viewer - with the open mouth and visible teeth filed to a point, as if to better preserve the sanctity of the effigies. The projecting thrust of the heads accentuated by the oversized submental volume and the prognathous mouth, seemingly crafted to create an aura of attentive and meditative solemnity.

The very size of the Mabea figures (between 50 and 80 cm) more than likely determined whether or not they were carved with a posterior support. The large figures could be set up near reliquary chests, but not necessarily on top of them, and could sometimes appear as couples. In 1901, for example, the figures offered in W. D. Webster's catalogue were presented as a "pair of wooden statuettes, Mabea, Southern Cameroon". Four figures collected around 1900 by Georg Zenker for the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde appear in a photograph featuring two "chest-couples andbyeri skulls from the Lolodorf region, on the Lukundje, in Süd-Kamerun." In this respect, the formal kinship between the Fénéon female figure and the Reiss-Museum male figure (55 cm, inv. IV-Af-960, former Haack collection) is to be noted, inasmuch as neither possesses a posterior support. However this pairing was never actually observed in the field.

In his analysis of the beti so rituals, (Initiations et sociétés secrètes au Cameroun, 1985, p. 342), ethnographer Philippe Laburthe-Tolra mentions the existence of figures made from a combination of clay and wood, which were different from those used in ancestor worship and were placed in the secret enclosure or initiatory underground passage constructed by initiates during events reserved for the young. It is therefore possible that large Mabea figures devoid of a posterior support were used in byeri rituals in the same way.

The "Fénéon" Fang Mabea Figure, a Universal Masterpiece

Although as explained the specific history of the Mabea partly explains the striking singularity of their sculpture within the vast stylistic corpus of Fang statuary, we owe this archetypal masterpiece of African sculpture to the genius of its individual sculptor, with its creation dating back to the mid-19th century at the latest.

Coiffe Fang, début du XXème siècle, région du Sud Cameroun. Photos de la mission Cottes, 1908. DR

Carved with an adze and a knife in a dense blond wood with a reddish patina and perfectly polished surfaces, the quality of the craftsmanship of this striking female figure suggests a visibly time-honoured tradition. The clavicle hollows between the upper chest and shoulders, a characteristic feature of the Mabea style, are complemented by certain iconographic details which probably result from exchanges between Fang groups during the first period of migration in the 18th century.

Coiffe Fang, Nord-Gabon, vers 1900, Archives des P.P. du Saint-Esprit. DR

This figure, with its chest bearing scarification in a frieze pattern with inlaid brass diamond shapes almost certainly evokes a female ancestor revered for her many descendants. The inlaid diamond shapes can be found, albeit in more schematic patterns, in other Mabea and Ngumba ancestor effigies. Although the proportions favour the head, with its magnificent lobed coiffure, they are offset by the long neck and thin torso, which is supported by massive lower limbs and arched buttocks. Simultaneously the smooth flow of the arms, the slight inclination of the feet and the infinitesimal curvature of the finger tips seem to imbue the figure with a suggestion of movement, intimating the very presence of the ancestor.

The figure's striking sculptural beauty, which inspires combined feelings of strength and sanctity, is complemented by the remarkable care given to the surfaces that delicately render the outlines of the figure. The breath-taking artistic command of the sculptor is expressed in every detail of this figure, all the way to the carved nails of the finger-tips.

The head is perhaps the most important element of this masterpiece. Sculpted in an oblong volume, it displays a very expressive face, recalling certain Egyptian sculptures, such as those of Akhenaten at Karnak.

The forehead is tightly bound in the coiffure with its side lobes resting on large, delicately furled and pierced ears. The forcefulness of the face is enhanced by the subtle fashioning of the cheekbones (visible in profile) and cheeks, whose amphora-like convergence of lines taper to the chin. Beneath the arched eyebrows, carved out on either side of the thin nose with its slightly rounded tip, the large, oval, glass-inlaid eyes, rimmed with brass foils and adorned with repoussé work, gaze out intently. These are the eyes of an inspired magician.

The wide mouth with its finely drawn lips opens onto a series of teeth - serrated on the upper row and subtly stylized on the bottom row - with the tongue on display, as on other archaic ancestral statuary from Southern Cameroon (cf. LaGamma, 2008, cover, for a pair of figures from the Peabody Museum, Cambridge). Rather than an aggressive stance, the symbolism expressed here is likely related to breathing or speaking. Another unusual detail figures on the long slender neck is a kind of Adam's apple in low relief. From this discreet reminder of this cartilaginous growth, which, although it is more fully developed in men than in women, does indeed exist for both sexes, the artist drew a remarkable detail.

Although the dark coiffure - with padded side lobes adorned with fine longitudinal braids at the top and a braided band stretching from the ears to the nape of the neck - matches those observed and photographed by travellers who journeyed across North Western Gabon and the coast of Southern Cameroon towards the 1900s, in this piece the sculptor has retained only the main outlines and beautifully pared them down to the sole remaining tension in the curves. 

Despite the fact that we do not know how this masterful scuplture came into the collection of Félix Fénéon, the appreciation of this masterpiece by a man who was revered from the late 19th century onwards for the accuracy of his criticism, a man who discovered so many of the artistic talents who became the pinnacles of Neo-Impressionist and Modern painting, and a man who ceaselessly advocated the inclusion of "art from remote places" into the collections of the Louvre, is still as meaningful and as poignant as ever.