The small corpus of ancient statuary of the Mbembe people is remarkable for its dynamic, intense, and naturalistic quality, great age, and relatively late exposure to the outside world. Ezio Bassani (2005: 210) notes: "An unusual and memorable exhibition [...] revealed thirty years ago the impressive ancient sculpture of a small Nigerian people, the Mbembe (a name given by foreigners), numbering around forty thousand individuals in 1965 according to Ekpo Eyo, in the region of Cross River on the borders with Cameroon." The 1974 exhibition organized by Hélène Kamer introduced these monumental statues to western collectors, and included eleven examples, including the present figure; a twelfth had been acquired from Kamer by the Musée du Louvre, Paris (inv. no. "MNAN 74.1.1"), in advance of the exhibition.
Alisa Lagamma, discussing the Mbembe figure recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Kamer 1974: no. 10; Metropolitan Museum inv. no. "2010.256"), notes: "It is one of only a dozen Mbembe works created as early as the seventeenth century, making them the oldest wood sculptures to have survived south of the western Sudan. Each of these figures appears to have originally been an integral part of a monumental carved drum positioned at the epicenter of Mbembe spiritual life. The exposure of the surviving examples to the elements over extended periods of time has resulted in intensive weathering, which has become a dramatic dimension of their aesthetic."
The only complete early example of such a drum to survive is in the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Koloss 2002: 90-91, cat. 63). Based on comparison with this drum and the horizontal orientation of the wood grain, it seems that nine of these figures were indeed part of drums whereas the remaining three, showing the grain in vertical orientation, seem to have been freestanding figures, perhaps as parts of an architectural context. While all of the other sculptures numbered in the iconic group of twelve shown at the Kamer exhibition are seated, the Muensterberger figure is unique in that it was conceived as a standing statue.
In combination with natural erosion, the longitudinal orientation of the wood grain has resulted in a mesmerizing feature of the Muensterberger figure: deep age cracks follow at the same time the undulating grain as well as the vertical contours of the body, the natural forms elegantly cooperating with the sculptor's design and directing the viewer's eyes up and down in waves, as if floating in space and time. The absence of head and hands strengthen this effect, producing a powerful, transcendental expression.
The Muensterberger figure probably represents a warrior chief, and once held the severed head of a vanquished enemy in one hand and a weapon in the other. The later royal statuary from the neighboring Cameroon grasslands gives clues about this iconography; for example the Figure of King Bay Akiy from the Tishman Collection (National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., inv. no. "1984.AF.051.110 a-b").
Bassani (ibid: 212) concludes: "The work of the artists and the action of time and nature are difficult to distinguish, but that does not make the final results any less fascinating. Erosion and the deep veining give the impression of stone, a sort of geological stratification in these perfectly simple and monumental sculptures, which go beyond the narrow field of culture to embody something universal."
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