Its impressive headpiece as well as the leopard-tooth necklace and anklets reflect the status of this statuette-portrait of a king. The king is shown standing, legs apart, right hand holding a long-necked calabash.
- Collected in Fontem by Gustav Conrau between 1898 and 1899
- Former collection Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin (Inv. III C10518)
- Former collection of Arthur Speyer II (1894–1958), Berlin
- Former collection of Harry and Ruth A. Franklin, Los Angeles. Sotheby’s New York, 21 April 1990, lot no. 128
- Former private collection, Japan
- Christie’s Paris, 4 December 2009, lot no. 130
- Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris
- musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.3), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
The work’s original context
This commemorative representation of a king is a symbol of royal power and an emblem of the powerful secret lefem society. It belongs to a “handful of exceptional works”1 that are characterised by ‘expressionist’ craftsmanship of the body, which is rare in African sculpture.
It is emblematic through its history, iconographic wealth and intensity of presence, illustrating the visual power of Bangwa sculptures. This artwork attests to the outstanding creativity of the Cameroon Grasslands sculptors, who captured, in the “violent yet sensitive” expression of faces and bodies, all the “sensual vitality and spiritual tension”2 of these effigies. Through the symbols they convey and the traditions they bear witness to, “Bangwa works not only have historical value, but offer a path to understanding the present.”3
The Bangwa people settled in the 16th century4 in the highlands of the south-west of the Cameroon Grasslands, a vast area made up of high-altitude volcanic plateaus in western Cameroon. They are divided into nine sovereign micro-states or independent kingdoms. These political entities remained relatively isolated until the 1960s5. Referred to as ‘chiefdoms’ in the colonial era, they were grouped together under the generic name ‘Bangwa’.6 This king statue comes from the Lebang or Fontem kingdom, this second name, associated with that of the reigning dynasty7, being the most widely used in studies on chiefdoms in western Cameroon.
Trade was very important in the life of these communities in the Nweh (or Ngwe) language group, linguistically and culturally close to the Bamileke chiefdoms of the high-altitude plateaus with which they had especially strong political, cultural and artistic ties. In the 19th century, the trade network developed by the Bangwa chiefdoms extended to the coastal regions of Cameroon and Nigeria. This network produced a huge flow of goods and trade with the peoples of the forests, the lowlands and the Cross River, particularly the Banyang, Ejagham and Ekoi peoples8, with whom they would trade European guns and salt in exchange for slaves. The influence of these contacts is significant in certain religious practices and visible in artworks9.
The Bangwa chiefdoms, structured under a system deemed feudal10, comprise, at the top of the social hierarchy, a supreme chief or ‘holy king’11 called fwa, fo or fon. After a series of initiation rites, the body of the fwa would be filled with supernatural powers emanating from deceased ancestors and spirits of nature. Though these supernatural forces give the fwa legitimacy, this chief’s political power is counterbalanced by influential secret societies, the two most powerful of which are the troh and lefem societies.
1 Von Lintig in Christie’s Paris, 4 December 2009, lot no. 130.
The fwa would commission this type of statue from the sculptor deemed the most skilful in the kingdom. Known as lefem, these statues are royal portraits associated with a particular sovereign, member of the royal family or member of a sovereign’s circle (queens and queen mothers, princesses, favourite spouses, mothers of twins or especially devoted dignitaries). Lefem statues are also tied to the secret society of the same name, referred to under the term gong society12 by Robert Brain and Adam Pollock and composed of members of the royal family and dignitaries entrusted with looking after these effigies.
Kwifo gong players in Nseï, 1954. © A. Schmidt.© D.R.
These statues are more than just portraits. They were considered living intermediaries of the king or individual presented. They were used in worship of royal ancestors and were only displayed in public once certain rituals relating to food and sexual prohibitions had been performed13. Like in other Grassland kingdoms, they would mainly appear in funerals and enthronement ceremonies of fwas to ensure the legitimacy and continuity of ancestral royal power. They were also displayed in gong performances14 connected to the lefem society.15
Invocation of three fuon-toh statues by the foyn of Kom, Jinabo II, at his enthronement, 10 January 1976. © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK
Commemorative lefem effigies were also associated with worship of entities16 or natural holy sites like trees, rocks, mountains, waterfalls or lakes17. These annual ceremonies would be overseen by a ‘priest of the earth’ with the title tanyi18 (father of twins) and would involve animal sacrifices, as well as libations poured on lefem statues. These ritual sacrifices, on which the potency of the statues depended, would also be performed on masks and some musical instruments such as slit drums19.
At each new enthronement, the fwa would inherit commemorative effigies of his predecessors “like a gallery of ancestors.”20 The lefem statues were custodians of the memory and history of each royal dynasty, and formed vital vehicles of legitimacy given to power.21 In theory, a chief with seven known ancestors through the male line would have seven commemorative lefem statues22. This inheritance would incorporate the new sovereign into a dynastic fabric and provide him with the protection of the ancestors in the royal lineage, the skulls of which were regularly used in ritual sacrifices. According to Jean-Pierre Warnier, “each of the nine palaces would contain a lodge where the skulls of monarchs would be kept, each identified by their name and place in the succession.Each skull would stand on an upturned pot. It would be accompanied with a statue representing the deceased monarch, although this would not be kept in the same lodge. […] The king would regularly pour libations on the skulls, and not on the statues .”
Lefem statue-portraits were carefully hidden and kept in the homes of royal spouses23, under the watchful eye of a guard. Pierre Harter explains that the commemorative lefem effigies “would act as memorials […] and each would be designated with the name of the ancestor they would represent and regarded with the respect that the given ancestor was due. Supernatural or legendary feats were sometimes ascribed to them, with custodian-servants only able to take them out of their hiding place once certain ritual precautions had been performed.”24
The term lefem also refers to each chiefdom’s25 ‘sacred grove’, where rituals, preparations for the succession process for the next fwa and production of commemorative lefem effigies took place. During meetings of lefem society members, access to the sacred grove was barred by rods topped with a figure: “The night after a chief takes office, members gather in the sacred grove (lefem) where princes are buried. There, they play a gong concert to ensure that the new monarch flourishes and becomes great. In December or January, during the dry season, they perform twu ala propitiatory sacrifices and rituals to fertilise the earth and bless the village. The statues are then taken out of the akoko lefem (skull huts) and attics where they were hidden, wrapped in large leaves and placed under a shelter in the sacred grove.”26
Royal insignia, gestures and symbols
A lefem statue includes a range of regalia symbolising royalty or nobility, or evoking the remarkable attributes of the individual it celebrates. Lefem statues provide an interesting insight into the finery and emblems of power that were only worn by dignitaries and members of the royal family.
The two-lobed head covering featuring an array of characteristic outgrowths is typical of the headdresses worn by Bangwa leaders and free men27. While the structure and colour of these prestigious headdresses indicate the rank and precedence of those wearing them, the especially imposing character of this head-based finery alludes to an eminently important person.
The set of royal insignia is completed with a prestigious necklace made of leopard teeth and glass pearls acquired from trade and commerce, ivory bracelets worn exclusively by the king28 and a calabash for palm wine. The strong shoulders and visible genitals29, symbolising the sovereign’s power and fertility, evoke his ability to provide the community with wealth and fecundity, and to ensure its continued existence.
The leopard teeth forming the necklace (worn by the king, dignitaries and mothers of twins in ceremonies)30, the feet shaped like cat paws, the teeth sharpened into points and the ankle ornaments likely made of leopard skin31 allude to the king’s capacity to take on the appearance and aptitudes of his animal counterpart, the fwa being associated with the ferocity of the leopard, the main reincarnation of sovereigns in the Cameroon Grasslands. The leopard was an eminent symbol of royal power tied to the lefem society32. Just like in the case of elephant tusks33, each leopard killed was brought to the fwa, for whom the leopard’s fur, whiskers (a vital ingredient used in royal rituals) and fangs were reserved.
Calabashes containing palm wine were another basic element used in ritual ceremonies and sacrificial libations. They were usually embellished with an ornamentation of glass pearls, characteristic of art in the Cameroon Grasslands. Some, known as tou-ngou, could be capped with the jaws of vanquished enemies so drinkers could absorb their life force.
The depiction of the vessel (the calabash with pearl ornamentation), the evocation of the content (palm wine), and the open mouth (an especially recurrent image in Bangwa sculpture) give material form to a unique practice associated with Grassland sovereigns: the spraying of the king’s bodily fluids during special ceremonies (breath, tied to speech, and saliva, plenty of which is produced by considerable intake of palm wine). As Jean-Pierre Warnier explains, “the role of the king – his burden – involves storing up all the gifts of his deceased ancestors in his own body. The deceased fill his bodily substances when weekly or yearly offerings are made to them. The king’s saliva, breath, speech and semen thereby become life-giving, reproductive substances that he shares with his wives and people, and which flow down like a waterfall over the kingdom’s entire social pyramid. Thus, the monarch is what could be called a ‘pot-king’. The bodily substances that he contains are passed on through non-bodily substances (raffia wine, palm oil, red make-up) but incorporated into his vital ducts and contained in vessels that enlarge the monarch’s bodily structure. The raffia wine that he sprays over the crowd flows via his mouth. In a similar way, each dignitary in the kingdom plays a role as a bodily intermediary between their ancestors and the members of their lineage. What is the purpose of these practices? To melt into a single political body all people of this heterogeneous kingdom, […]. The kingdom is therefore unified through practices in closing the town, palace and king’s body, through ducts for intake and discharge, and checks on what enters and exits at openings. These vital, sensory ducts are supported through all kinds of vessels: the king’s body, the bodies of the king’s subjects, bags, calabashes, drinking horns, make-up bowls, cooking pots, houses, palaces and towns. They are also supported through surfaces: skins of bodies, bellies of calabashes and vessels, and walls of houses. Furthermore, they are supported through openings: mouths, necks, house doors, palace doors and town doors. They close, open, decant, tie, pour, touch, anoint, rub, spray, absorb, etc. These ducts are thus micro-technologies of power. They are the focus of a scene that uses all resources in art.”34
Art and power
Though the crafting of commemorative lefem statues followed predefined images35, originality and artistic innovation was highly valued. According to Bettina Von Lintig, “the local sculptors worked without sketches, and had an image of the figures they wished to create in their minds.”36 Using a machete and chisels, each sculptor would take care to leave their mark. The statue would then be imbued with palm oil and smoked over a fire, giving the effigy a characteristically brownish-black patina.
Sovereigns in the Cameroon Grasslands supported a brilliant form of courtly art, giving special social status to sculptors, embroiderers and smiths. The kings themselves would take part in sculpting or add the final touch of the chisel to sculpted works. This promotion of art, especially sculpture, in the Grassland chiefdoms is not trivial as it is intrinsically tied to royal power37. The king’s “main concern is to constantly create the means of his power, through politics, religion and magic, but also […] through this other magic: sculpture.”38 As Louis Perrois explains, “the sovereigns of the Cameroon Grasslands were – and are still today – […] highly involved in everything relating to sculpture. Passing on royal power, as the ordinary exercise of the fo’s purpose, is based on a few highly potent objects: the enthronement seat, the royal bracelet, the effigies of deceased fo and mafo. […] This close, almost intimate and existential relationship with certain sculptures or objects of power incited sovereigns and dignitaries to carefully check both the preservation of insignia in the chiefdom’s wealth […] (for example in Foumban, Bandjoun, Bafanji, Bangwa, etc.) and the sculpting of new objects needed, like thrones, effigies of sovereigns, architectural decor of new huts, masks, etc.”39
Bangwa statuary: an art of movement
As soon as they arrived in the West, Bangwa creations became a source of fascination. This was largely due to the expressive dynamic of the bodies, which characterises some masterpieces, including this impressive portrait of a king. Transcending an artistic tradition tied to royalty and the associated symbols, Bangwa sculptors bestowed on their works the presence of living beings through the free interpretation of forms and their sculptural choices. This dynamic crafting of bodies, which seem to move despite their inertness40, evokes an ideal of power and is accentuated here with the play of light through facet cuts and the symbolic evocation of the breath of life, which, like a shout, escapes via the open mouth over sharpened teeth. This presence seems to animate the effigy, underlined in the momentum suggested in the bent knees and aggressive, asymmetrical face with blunted teeth that echo the depiction of the leopard-tooth necklace and outgrowths on the prestigious cap.
40 Von Lintig in Joubert, 2016, p. 72.
History of the work and its background
According to several specialists41, the statue of the king formed a couple with the emblematic ‘Bangwa Queen’, an icon in African art that has been world-renowned ever since the famous series of photographs taken by Man Ray in the 1930s. This original perspective from surrealists, among others, on so-called primitive objects would considerably help transform the status of these ethnographic objects into works of art.
The Bangwa king and ‘queen’ were acquired in Fontem by the German colonial agent Gustav Conrau around 1898–1899 and joined the Berlin Ethnological Museum in 189942. As Bettina Von Lintig underlined, ‘Every era has seen the objects collected in Africa in different ways, and this is particularly true of Conrau’s pieces, which need to be seen in the context of the competitive collecting that European museums were engaged in at the time he was ﬁeld collecting. Institutions vied with one another to obtain the best and most representative objects from colonized cultures, which they considered to be doomed to disappearance.”43
As an employee of the Hamburg-based ﬁrm of Jantzen & Thormählen44, Gustav Conrau was 25 years old45 when he began his career as a colonial agent46 in 1890 in Cameroon, which had been a German colony since 1884. From 189147, he led many commercial expeditions, especially alongside explorer Eugen Zintgraff48 and worked for the Westafrikanische Pﬂanzungsgesellschaft Victoria (WAPV), known in English as the West African Plantation Company in Victoria (today the coastal city of Limbe)49. During a brief stay in Germany from April50 to August 189851, Gustav Conrau met Felix von Luschan, the curator of the African and Oceanian Department at the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin52. On his return to Cameroon at the end of 1898, he went to the region of Highlands, exploring a geographical area that no white man53 before him had ever visited. When he arrived in the Lebang (or Fontem) kingdom in December54, he met the Bangwa king Fontem Assunganuyi with whom he forged ties that helped him acquire especially important objects for Felix von Luschan. Gustav Conrau’s letters with Kurt Hassert and Felix von Luschan helps trace the acquisitions he made in the Bangwa region before his tragic death in 1899 in circumstances that are still ambiguous55.
During the six months he spent in the Bangwa region, Gustav Conrau sent several shipments to Berlin, which included many zoological and botanical specimens (“180 varieties of plants and seventy-four kinds of birds”56) and ethnographic objects that he attempted to document by collecting basic information from his informants in the field: “I bought the […] fetishes all over the Bangwa area. After I had offered him many gifts, the chief allowed his people to sell me these objects. They are old things, which are no longer very highly regarded. The newer fetishes, namely those of Chief Fontem, are now usually decorated with beads. The people supplied me with the names of the objects, but I cannot vouch for their accuracy. […] Since they are most reticent to discuss the fetishes, I think they may have intentionally given me incorrect informa-tion […].”57
Among the Bangwa works that Conrau collected, the king and ‘Queen’ stayed in the Berlin collections up until the 1920s. At this time, the Berlin museums included a special commission that applied a trade and sale policy for non-European works considered duplicates. This system of duplicates was in place from 1888 to 194358 and made the fortune of the famous Berlin family of collectors and dealers in ethnological objects: the Speyers. They acquired several thousand objects over several decades, mainly the collections of the museums of Berlin, Bremen, as well as several major German institutions. Arthur Speyer I (1858–1923) was an assistant at the institute of zoology at the University of Strasbourg from 1901. He was behind the launch of the natural and ethnographic history museum in Mariakerke, Belgium. Subsequently appointed director of a zoological institute in Berlin, he supplied many museums with ethnographic items and entomological specimens.
Following in his footsteps, Arthur Speyer II (1894–1958), upon returning from his military service in 1921, considerably developed the family business, making the most of his father’s large network of contacts and special relations with the Berlin museums. Among the forty59 Bangwa statues from the collections at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin collected by Gustav Conrau, Arthur Speyer II acquired five works60 between 1925 and 192961, including the Bangwa king and queen. What is rarely mentioned is that, in addition to supplying many private and museum collections, Arthur Speyer II would offer to rent out African and Oceanian works for decor at theatres, cinemas, fairs and advertisements at the end of the 1920s62. The Bangwa king was displayed in Berlin in 1925 as part of a trade fair reproducing an imaginary decor made up of several works collected in Cameroon. It also featured in an advertisement in the German periodical for an exhibition entitled Exotic objects and cacti displayed at the Neumann & Nierendorf Gallery in Berlin in 192663.
At the start of the 1930s, Arthur Speyer sold the ‘Queen’ to Parisian art dealer Charles Ratton. Shortly thereafter, it joined Helena Rubinstein’s large collection of African and Oceanian art, where it remained for almost thirty years. The American art dealer and collector Harry Franklin (1904–1983) subsequently acquired it when Helena Rubinstein’s collection was sold in 1966. As regards the king, it remained with the Speyer family until the end of the 1960s, before being gifted to Harry Franklin. At first a textile business manager, Harry Franklin began collecting at the end of the 1930s. In the 1950s, he opened a gallery in Beverly Hills specialising in African, Oceanian and pre-Columbian art with his wife Ruth, which quickly became one of the leading art galleries on the US west coast.
The royal ‘couple’ stayed together for nearly 30 years in the Franklin collection before being separated once again in April 1990 when part of the collection was sold. Today, the ‘Queen’ is conserved in the Fondation Dapper collections. The king, having been part of a large Japanese collection up to 2009, joined the collection of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, then that of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, which presents this outstanding masterpiece to the general public.
Selected bibliography and cartography
Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.
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Brain, Robert, The Bangwa of West Cameroon: a brief account of their history and culture, London, University College, 1967.
Brain, Robert, and Pollock, Adam, Bangwa Funerary Sculpture, London, Gerald Duckworth and Co, 1971.
Conrau, Gustav, ‘Im Lande der Bangwa’ in Von Danckelman, Freiherr, Mittheilungen von Forschungsreisenden und Gelehrten aus den Deutschen Schutzgebieten, vol. 12, Berlin, 1899.
Defabo, Julia Lynn, The Bangwa Queen: Interpretations, Constructions, and Appropriations of Meaning of the Esteemed Ancestress Figure from the Cameroon Grassfields, Bard College, Senior Projects Spring 2014, Paper 14, 2014.
De Grunne, Bernard (dir.), Mains de Maîtres, à la Découverte des Sculpteurs d'Afrique, Brussels, BBL Bruxelles, 2001.
Dustan, Elizabeth, ‘A Bangwa account of early encounters with the German colonial administration’ in Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, vol. III, no. 2. 1965, pp. 403-413.
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Gardi, Bernhard, Kunst in Kamerun, Basel, Museum für Völkerkunde, 1994.
Harter, Pierre, Arts Anciens du Cameroun, Arnouville, Arts d'Afrique Noire, 1986.
Harter, Pierre, ‘Royal Commemorative Figures in the Cameroon Grasslands: Ateu Atsa, a Bangwa Artist’ in African Arts, volume 23, no. 4, October 1990, pp. 70–96.
Joubert, Hélène (dir.), Éclectique : Une collection du XXIe siècle, Paris, musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac; Flammarion, 2016, pp. 72-73.
Krieger, Kurt, Westafrikanische Plastik I, Berlin, Museum für Völkerkunde, 1965.
LaGamma, Alisa, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures, New York; New Haven Conn., Metropolitan Museum of Art distributed; Yale University Press, 2011.
Lockhart, Vincent, ‘A social-historical study of social change among the Bangwa of Cameroon’ in Occasional Paper, no. 52, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, 1994.
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Northern, Tamara (dir.), Expressions of Cameroon Art, The Franklin Collection, Beverly Hills, Rembrandt Press, 1986.
Perrois, Louis, ‘Sculpteurs et notables (Ouest-Cameroun)’ in the conference 2e Colloque européen sur les arts d'Afrique noire, Paris, 23–24 October 1993 at Musée national des arts d'Afrique & d'Océanie, Arnouville, Arts d’Afrique noire, 1993, pp. 115-120.
Perrois, Louis (dir.), Les Rois sculpteurs : art et pouvoir dans le Grassland camerounais, Legs Pierre Harter, Paris, RMN-Grand Palais, 1993.
Perrois, Louis and Notue, Jean-Paul, Rois et Sculpteurs de l'Ouest Cameroun, la Panthère et la Mygale, Paris, Karthala / ORSTOM, 1997.
Schlothauer, Andreas, ‘Gustav Conrau’s Cameroon Collection in the Berlin Ethnological Museum’ in Kunst und Kontext, no. 9, 2015.
Von Lintig, Bettina, Die bildende Kunst der Bangwa : Werkstatt-Traditionen und Künstlerhandschriften, Munich, Akademischer Verlag, 1994.
Von Lintig, Bettina and Dubois, Hughes, Cameroun, Arts Traditionnels, Paris, Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2006.
Von Lintig, Bettina, ‘From Fontem to Berlin: The Long Journey of a Bangwa Lefem Staff’ in Tribal Art Magazine, no. 76, Summer 2015, pp. 20–25.
Von Lintig, Bettina, ‘On the Bangwa Collection Formed by Gustav Conrau’ in Tribal Art Magazine, no. 86, Winter 2017, pp. 94–113.
Warnier, Jean-Pierre, ‘Techniques du corps et esthétique de l’art royal en Afrique’ in Le Portique, no. 17, 2006.
Zintgraff, Eugen, Nordkamerun. Schilderung der im Auftrag des Auswärtigen Amtes zur Erschliessung des nördlichen Hinterlandes von Kamerun während der Jahre 1886-92 unternommenen Reisen, Berlin 1895.