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Fang and Kota the Great Sculptural traditions of Equatorial Africa.

As is well known, among the many works and some exceptional masterpieces which illustrate the ancient art of sub-Saharan Africa, those of the Fang and Kota are arguably the best loved. When one looks at the famous 1935 photograph of objects assembled for the exhibition at MOMA in New York, one is struck by the large number of objects from Gabon, especially from the Fang and Kota.

Lot ImageGoogle  

Sale 1278, Lot 68 April 3 2003 
A Superb Fang Male Reliquary Figure
Eyema byeri, Northern Fang, Ntoumou
Estimate: $200,000-300,000  Sold for 522,700$ costs included

by Louis Perrois Found at www.christies.com    April 2003

Seven of the nine "Gabonese" objects brought together in the present sale come from the renowned collection of Frank Crowninshield, formed in New York in the 1930s, so it is not surprising to find objects from Equatorial Africa.

Of the Fang figures, one is in the Mvaï style (lot 67), the other three are in the Ntomou style (lots 68, 69 and 71). As a result of the ethno-stylistic studies made in the 1960s and 1970s in a large number of private and public western collections, as well as in northern Gabon itself (cf. La Statuaire fañ, Gabon, 1972), and following research in archives and early publications (most notably Günter Tessman's monograph, Die Pangwe, published in Berlin in 1913), I identified the distinctive style of the Mvaï (or Mvae), a group of Pangwe (Fang) settled in the extreme north of Gabon, close to the present Cameroon border, on the upper Ntem river. However, can one describe these Mvaï objects as a "style" or should one consider the remarkable homogeneity of the figures as the production of a "school"? In the end does it really matter?

Mvaï ancestor figures, usually male, are easily recognizable: a rather stocky body with barrel-shaped abdomen, frequently decorated with geometric scarification (long triangles and lozenges), the arms held close to the sides with the hands joined at the base of the chest, the seated position of the lower limbs with curved thighs and thick calves of 'bi-truncated-cone' form, the head always striking with its perfectly rounded forehead crowned with a typical coiffure with three large triangular striated plaits. The two original carvings in this "style" are illustrated and named as such by G. Tessman in "Die Pangwe" vol. II, fig. 44 (cf. The two objects on the lower right collected circa 1905 in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Lübeck); the magnificent male statue was published a little later in a three quarter view by Ernst Fuhrmann in "Afrika", 1922, p. 75.

The figure from the Frank Crowninshield collection (lot 67) is comparable to these early prototypes. Of a more modest size, (less than 50cm) this male figure for the traditional ancestor cult, byeri, is a perfect example of the specific style of Mvaï art: the balanced proportions of the body in three equal parts (head, torso, legs) give the impression of power whilst retaining a slender elegance (the flared torso with its large navel shaped as a quartered sphere and its finely defined pectoral muscles; the neck of the same width as the upper torso, the sturdy arms with huge rounded forehead (marked with scarification on the temples which is typical of the Pangwe - cf. Tessman, 1913, vol. 1, figs. 218 and 219), and above it an imposing coiffure of three triangular crests, finely striated, representing braided hair falling over the nape of the neck in an elegant scroll.

The mass of the thighs resting on a retaining post (which would have been inserted and fixed by fiber or leather ties to the cover of the bark reliquary box which contained the ancestral skulls—nsekh-byeri), is of classic Fang form with its slanting curvilinear thighs and thick exaggerated calves with angular forms (notably the feet). The semi-seated pose of the figure confers a feeling of tension and power which refers to its role as the supernatural guardian of the lineage relics.

Lot 68, from Paul Guillaume (Valentine Gallery, New York, 1940), is an example of the "intermediate" style. Thus this figure, an eyema byeri, has Ntoumou proportions, with very elongated torso and neck, whilst at the same time resembling works in the Mvaï style. In fact these two groups were in contact in the 19th century in the northern region of Gabon (cf. Tessman, 1913). The Mvaï style is evident in the way that the thighs and calves are carved with stylized, almost unfinished, feet. Equally the checkerboard scarification motif on the upper abdomen, the muscular arms, the hands, barely indicated, held against the chest and the well-defined pectoral muscles carved in shallow relief joined to the rounded shoulders. The heart-shaped face has the half coffee-bean eyes typical of the Mvaï. This sculpture clearly illustrates the "permeability" of styles, demonstrating how a group can borrow an unusual form from another without harming the final aesthetic result; styles are open and in constant transformation, a sign of their vitality over time.

The other eyema byeri from the Frank Crowninshield collection (lot 69) is also in the classic Ntoumou style with its fine slender structure and its gently rounded surfaces. It is close in style to the Fang figure in the Museum of Mankind (60.5cm., Plass Collection). With an oozing patina of oil or resin it is a magnificent example of the Ntoumou art of north Gabon. One notices, above all, the harmonious roundness of the head; the front view with its "quarter sphere" forehead and hollow elongated face stretching forward; the profile with its beautiful false coiffure of flat tresses falling to envelop the nape of the neck to the shoulders. This object with its subtle forms bears witness to the mastery of material, wood and patina, by a great artist who unfortunately remains anonymous. The curves are well regulated (the concavity of the face, the rounded thighs, the subtle modelling of the arms and shoulders, the hollow furrow of the spine), the perfectly symmetrical composition is well placed in space without appearing too rigid.

We now turn to the Kota figures which also constitute a very representative sample of great quality of the principal styles of eastern Gabon.

The imposing ancestral figure, boho-na-bwete, of the Kota-Mahongwe (lot 75) like the Fang figures above comes from the collection of Frank Crowninshield, New York, and is typical of the style formerly incorrectly known as "ossyeba". It is typical of a style confined to the northern Kota. These extreme almost two-dimensional stylizations of the human form are among the most extraordinary expressions of the ancestor cult of Equatorial Africa.

The face is reduced to a minimalist form of arched or vaulted contour with two cabochon eyes close to and on each side of the nose which emerges like a hooked blade, two anatomical elements with suffice to give this image an intense human expression from which realism is banished. The flat "forehead" is a simple attached panel with no incised decoration; the "cheeks" are flat planes decorated with numerous horizontal brass strips; the mouth area with no orifice indicated is framed by two long drooping "moustaches" which resemble tribal scarifications. The back is entirely covered with thin sheets of brass on which one sees a triple tress of hair in relief hanging down - the only note of realism in this ancestral image. In fact in former times only a high chief of the Mahongwe could wear this coiffure called ibenga (a long fall of hair at the back with the temples carefully shaved), a sign of his power as head of the lineage.

All the Kota Mahongwe reliquaries demonstrate this same pure simple design. However a study of the group has shown that two categories exist which are associated but very distinct: the larger figures (more than 50cm. high, of an imposing size - such as those seen here) and others very small (15 to 20cm.). The first were symbolic images of the founders of lineages, the others simply represented chiefs. The large and small figures were fixed together on the reliquary baskets, often huge baskets containing the remains of many generations (skulls, and various bones, talismans, magical plants, copper torques, etc.). Oral tradition gathered since 1966 about the religious life and ritual practices of the Kota-Mahongwe have been corroborated later by very rare archival photographs belonging to the family of a colonial agent who was in Makokou and Mékambo in 1920-1925. Of particular interest are the reliquary baskets and several boho-na-bwete in situ, however in a disordered state, probably indicating that the site had already been almost abandoned (Matoté village on the road to the ancient post of Kemboma, Ivindo region, cf. Louis Perrois "L'esprit de la fôret, Terres du Gabon", Bordeaux, 1997, p. 114).

Finally, the Mahongwe were not numerous in either Gabon or neighboring Congo-Brazzaville and furthermore they lived in a very marshy forest region in which it was difficult to travel until the 1950s. It is not therefore surprising that these strange figures are seldom found in western collections. Apart from the famous "ossyeba" figures collected in the lower Ivindo by O. Lenz in 1877 (Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin-Dahlem) and J. Michaud (Musée du Tracadéro, Paris, 1886) the present example, lot 75, is one of the first known in the west in a private collection.

The other Kota figures can be attributed to southeast Gabon notably to the Kota-Obamba. "Kota" art (this generic term being employed as a useful means of identification when the ethno-historic and linguistic reality of Gabon, the complexity of which has been revealed little by little, shows that the people themselves do not recognize themselves as "Fang" or "Kota", each group having its own traditions and specific name) is seen as a mosaic of styles at the same time related (notably by their common form and the use of brass) but very distinct in the detail. The studies of the entire corpus undertaken since 1970 (Perrois, Chaffin) based on hundreds of examples have enabled us to trace the lines of their distribution and their reciprocal bonds established at the time of their early migrations.

Three figures offered here (lots 70, 72, and 73) illustrate three sub-styles from the end of the 19th century which one can place, from the north to the south from Sébé valley and the curve of the Ogowe towards Franceville. In fact, the smallest (lot 72), with its broken lozenge body, and narrow semicircular crest, rounded lateral flanges and slanting pendants has an oval face decorated with small strips of brass placed horizontally (which recalls the "Mahongwe" style and characterizes the "northernenss" of the sub-style - this motif of fine strips on the horizontal is only found to the north of the Sébé, further south one finds radiating strips or panels which are plain, engraved or embossed).

Another reliquary figure (lot 73), formerly in the collection of Frank Crowninshield, is a magnificent specimen of the Obamba sub-style found a little further south: the oval face is a little larger but one sees the same motif in longitudinal relief on the forehead. The strips, finely set in a radiating pattern (no longer horizontal) on each quarter of the face delineating the two broad metal sheets attached in a cruciform shape, support the nose and the almond-shaped eyes; the narrow lateral flanges are decorated with an embossed ropework design with slanting pendants; but most remarkable is the splendid crescent crest of which the two very fine "horns" curve down to rejoin the lateral flanges. On this crest a series of vertical appendages are reminiscent of the spiralling finials of the Mahongwe. A fairly large number of figures of this type are known, all almost identical (compare Louis Perrois, Arts du Gabon, 1979, pp. 170-171, and Chaffin, Art Kota, 1980, p. 236-238). The reliquary figure from Frank Crowninshield and Sachs Gallery (lot 74) is similar to the previous example. It should be noticed that the lateral flanges are no longer complete curves but are truncated at the base, something which is found again in the Kota Obamba style of the Upper Ogowe. The last example (lot 70) is even more "classic" with its wide transverse crescent crest and generous lateral flanges with rectilinear lower borders, its truncated base, the cylindrical pendants hanging beautiful regular oval form finely decorated with strips radiating from the nose; it has a tetrahedral volume; and lastly the crescent-shaped eyes are fixed on each side of the median metal sheet.

With these nine magnificent figures from Equatorial Africa, most from prestigious collections, the collector is able to take a tour of the great styles of Gabon in a single glance, from the marionette effigies, eyema byeri, of the Fang made of dark and oozing wood (for the ritual use of these objects consult Louis Perrois, Arts du Gabon, 1979, p. 40-46) to the sumptuous ancestral images, mbulu ngulu, and other boho-na bwete of the northern and southern Kota (cf. Chaffin, "Art Kota", 1980).

There remains one last mystery however, clearly illustrated by this series of works: why did the Fang develop this remarkable three dimensional sculptural style, albeit with altered proportions, whereas the Kota, for their images made for very similar symbolic and ritual functions, chose to renounce reality completely and to flatten their images in a two-dimensional, almost dream-like, visual space? In each case, the Fang and Kota artists, creating with their skilled and inspired hands these instruments of visual fission with reality of everyday life, sought to gain access to the world of death and the spirits so necessary for the survival of all. Almost certainly further research will allow us to lift a little higher the veil from this enigma in the history of African art.


Andersson, E.: Contribution à l'ethnographie des Kuta, 2 vols., Uppsala, 1953 & 1974
Ethnologie religieuse des Kuta, 2 vols., Uppsala, 1987 & 1990
Chaffin, A. et F.: L'art Kota, Meudon, 1980
Dapper Musée/Foundation: La voie des ancêstres, 1986
Fang: (P. Laburthe-Tolra & C. Falgayrette-Leveau), 1991
Perrois, L.: Chronique du pays Kota, Gabon, Orstrom, 1970
Arts du Gabon, Arnouville, 1979
Art ancestral du Gabon, collection Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, 1985
Byeri fang, sculptures d'ancêtres en Afrique, Musées Nationaux, Marseille, 1992
L'esprit de la forêt. Terres du Gabon (under the direction of), Somogy and Musée d'Auitaine, Bordeaux, 1997
Tessmann, G. Die Pangwe, 2 vols., Berlin, Wasmuth, 1913

read also general info on Gabon tribes an fang head

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