PARIS – I had already come across this Fang Mabea figure twice during my career, at two major exhibitions, before it became the star work of our forthcoming sale.

fang-mabea-frontFang Mabea figure, early 19th century, Cameroon. Estimate €2,500,000–3,500,000 ($3,450,000–4,830,000).

On those previous meetings I had been struck by how different this extraordinary work was from traditional Fangs, carved from dark woods with sweaty patinas. A few months ago I finally had the chance to admire it face-to-face (so to speak) – one of the perks of my job.

The magic was even stronger up close. Its singular appeal captivated me in all its beauty. With its powerful expression and staggering intensity, allied to the feeling of sacredness, I had no doubt I was in the presence of a masterpiece. It was just a matter of attributing it: to a corpus – that of the Fang Mabea; to a region – Cameroon; and to a date – the mid-19th century, if not before. 

fang-mabea-sideFang Mabea figure, early 19th century, Cameroon. Estimate €2,500,000–3,500,000 ($3,450,000–4,830,000).

But this exceptional work, the supreme achievement of a virtuoso carver, defies any rational need for ‘categorization.’ The artist left a powerfully individual mark, imbued with deep respect for his model – a woman whose anatomy evokes the link with her descendants and clan. She embodies a protective figure and powerful personality, one invested with natural authority, guiding her people with her words and foresight. Did she have a political or religious role within the clan? Did she lead the migration of the Mabea in the early 18th century? The questions around this mysterious figure abound. 

It is easy to understand why her former owners, Félix Fénéon and Jacques Kerchache, were fascinated by her. Both men were key figures in the history of African Art, with a passionate commitment to earning recognition for these masterpieces. Both viewed our figure as the iconic work in their collection.

Jean Fritts introduces one of the most iconic sculptures in African Art, the Fénéon Fang Mabea figure.

Marguerite de Sabran is the Head of African & Oceanic Art department at Sotheby's Paris.