Eyema byeri reliquary guardian
Gabon, Fang

This solemn male ancestor statue, seated, arms folded at the chest holding a cup, protected a reliquary basket containing bones from the lineage or clan. These effigies were regularly consulted and anointed. This produced a seeping patina, giving the impression of living skin.

 

Eyema byeri reliquary guardian

  • Fang people, Betsi sub-group

  • Gabonese Republic

  • 19th century

  • Wood, black patina lustre

  • H 42.5cm; W 21cm; D 11cm

  • Base by Kichizô Inagaki (1876-1951), Paris

 
 
 

Origin

  • Former Georges de Miré collection (1890-1965), Paris
  • Former Nico Mazaraki collection, Paris

  • Former Albert Kleinmann collection, Paris

  • Bernard De Grunne, Brussels

  • Former Adam Lindemann collection, New York

  • Sotheby’s, Paris, 11 December 2013, lot no. 23

  • Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris

  • musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.24), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.

The work’s original context

 

Byeri and Fang reliquary guardians

Representative of the powerful Fang sculptural creation, this male statue belongs to the iconic body of reliquary guardians, ancestor statues known as eyema byeri. Used as part of ancestral worship, they sat atop the cylindrical bark boxes that contained the reliquaries of the most illustrious ancestors in the lineage. These full-length anthropomorphic sculptures (eyema byeri ‘image of the byeri’), sometimes busts or simply heads (nlo byeri ‘head of the byeri’), guarded precious lineage relics to protect them from sacrilege. These collections of relics (ekokwe nlo) were formed of various bones taken from the most prestigious deceased members of the tribe (mainly whole skulls and skullcaps, femurs, phalanxes, vertebra, teeth) sometimes mixed with gems, plants and other items considered magical. Skulls were the most important of these relics and contributed to the tribe’s social prestige: the more skulls, the greater the guarantee of the age of the family lineage, and by extension, the renown and wealth of the group. Containers that could be easily transported during migrations, guarantors of the legitimacy of the lineage and future marriage alliances, the reliquary boxes (nsekh byeri) were kept out of view, in a protected place in the house of the family chief (esa).

The byeri, the generic term referring to both the cult of the ancestors, rituals and related cultural objects, formed the heart of Fang social and spiritual life. Although neither the divine creator Mebere nor the epic hero Nzame were the subject of rituals and offerings, the Fang believed that the prosperity, fertility and wealth of the entire community depended primarily on the tribe’s ancestors or lineage. The bestowers of all blessings, the ancestors could also be dangerous disruptive elements if they were not regularly honoured through rituals. The ancestors were consulted before any major decision was made: political alliances, marriages, wars, village relocations, new plantings, hunting and fishing, etc.

Ritual presentation of skulls to initiates. © D.R

Ritual presentation of skulls to initiates. © D.R

To open the connection to the ancestors and earn their goodwill, the relics were taken out of their basket and wielded by the men, and had to be regularly ‘fed’ with blood, padauk sawdust or copal resin, ba powder (red powder, the sacred colour, made from a mix of padauk wood and oil), offerings of food and drinks and numerous palm oil anointings. Vehicles of mediation between the world of the living and that of the dead, Fang reliquary guardians were seen as symbolic incarnations of the power of the ancestors. Like the sacred bones, sculpted effigies initially adorned with feathers and jewels were also the object of many ritual libations to renew their potency.

These repeated anointings, combined with ‘magical’ elements, resulted in the distinctive patina on the wood, deep and gleaming, sometimes seeping like a miraculous icon. The patina, that is to say the specific colouring and texture a material takes on over time as a result of successive handling and deposits, attests to the age of a work and its ritual use. The seeping patinas of the Fang byeri are particularly remarkable due to the wood’s perspiration, which infuses the object with life and creates an impression of heightened watchfulness emanating from the reliquary guardians. These ‘tears’ attest to a very ancient permeation of the wood, revealing the emotional and spiritual force infused within these ‘images of byeri’. Analyses of the composition of the patina on five Fang byeri at the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac have shed new light on this phenomenon by differentiating three ‘states’ of the wood and two phases of permeation linked to their use. “The first [state] corresponds to the state of the raw wood (brown colour), the second shows evidence of the deed permeation of a liquid, no doubt following immersion (green colour) and the final state corresponds to success deposits relating to rituals (blue colour). This analysis corroborates ethnological descriptions, which identify two main use phases in patinas. The first is linked to the practice of immersion, facilitated by the low density and sponge-like properties of the wood generally used (Alstonia family). […] this immersion allows the liquid to permeate the core of the wood through medullary rays and pores. The second phase, characterised by the wood section with a significantly higher density, is explained by the accumulation of materials deposited during its use. Saturated by this accumulation, the wood can no longer absorb the deposits, which remain on the surface, creating this impression of perspiration”1. It should be noted that the oily substance permeates from the wood due to the influence of temperature.

These byeri effigies, some of which feature articulated limbs, could also have been used, depending on the region, as part of rituals forming part of the melan, the initiation ceremony for young men, during which they received the teaching of the ancestors. In this context, communication between the ancestors and the living was facilitated by ingestion of a hallucinogenic plant named alan, which triggered a hallucinatory catalepsy effect. The reliquary guardians thus served as educational tools, like animated puppets, during performances given by initiates and incarnated ideals of illustrious ancestors (male and female) that the initiates sought to relate to in order to take on their exemplary qualities. Separated from their basket and carried by their tenon joint, they were used to pass on history and genealogy to the young men.

______


Sophie Jacqueline, Christophe Moulherat, Sylvain Ordureau, Hélène Joubert, Yves Le Fur, Philippe Charlier « Anthropomorphy of sweat in reliquary gaurdians ( Fang,Gabon) : a CT-scan study », in « Forensic imaging », 2020.
Ingestion of alan during the purification ritual of the melan among the Ntumu Fang, 1968. © Louis Perrois / © D.R

Ingestion of alan during the purification ritual of the melan among the Ntumu Fang, 1968. © Louis Perrois / © D.R

The Fang: a history marked by migrations

Previously known as ‘Pahouin’ by the French, ‘Pangwe’ by the German and ‘Pamue’ by the Spanish during the colonial period, the Fang - from the name of one of the first groups that came into contact with Europeans in the 19th century - occupy a vast zone in Atlantic Equatorial Africa, between southern Cameroon, the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, the north of the Gabonese Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although their origins remain uncertain, their history and their social and religious structures were marked by a series of migrations that influenced one of the most important concepts in Fang culture: preserving the memory of the genealogy of the tribe’s lineage through the byeri cult. These migrations through the ‘great forest’, of pivotal importance in the lifestyles of the peoples who settled there, are recounted relatively analogously in the oral traditions of the different Fang groups. Despite their geographic dispersal, the Fang all share linguistic (Bantu languages), socio-cultural (patrilineality, patrilocal residence, exogamy, tribe structure, sub-tribes, lineage-based families and extended families) and cultural (cult of the ancestors) characteristics. The Mabea and Ngumba Fang groups, from central Cameroon, in the central plateau region, north of the Sanaga river basin, settled in southern Cameroon. From this zone, new migratory waves saw five other Fang groups settle in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon as of the 17th century: the Nzaman, Betsi, Ntumu, Mvai and Okak. The Betsi group, related to the southern Fang, also known under the name Mekè, occupy an area spanning the right bank of the Ogooué River, to the north of Lambaréné and the Ivindo River. Having travelled from the south, they reached the region in the 19th century and share a certain number of common characteristics, particularly in terms of sculpture, with their Okak neighbours.

 
'Map of Fang group migrations since the 17th century', according to Louis Perrois, map published in Le Fur, Yves (Dir.), Forêts natales, Arts d’Afrique équatoriale atlantique, Paris, musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac; Actes Sud, 2017,
'Map of Fang group migrations since the 17th century', according to Louis Perrois, map published in Le Fur, Yves (Dir.), Forêts natales, Arts d’Afrique équatoriale atlantique, Paris, musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac; Actes Sud, 2017,

Stylistic archetypes and workshops

Based on physical characteristics and décors, numerous studies have sought to identify more or less standardised reference styles spread geographically depending on the populations among which they are used. Betsi Fang artistic productions are considered as representative of a classic Fang statuary style. In addition to these stylistic archetypes are ‘expressions of transition’ that reflect a more subtle, more complex and more fluid reality, suggestive of zones of contact and influence between the different groups.

Unlike the ‘elongated’ and slender structures of the productions of their Ntumu neighbours, Betsi ancestor statues generally have ‘shortened’ limbs, as well as powerful volumes and a rounded form. A large head - a sign of power - emerges from generally sturdy shoulders, with a protruding forehead and a mouth blending into the chin. The ‘coffee bean’ nose and eyes are subtly incorporated into the heart-shaped structure characteristic of much Fang artistic production and also seen among other peoples in Equatorial Africa. This cordate structure, slightly curved in a concave shape in the inner part of the face, contrasts with the convex shape of the upper face following the half-sphered curve of the forehead. The balanced volumes, the anatomical details, particularly the muscles on the arms and torso, as well as the headpiece, all depicted with a certain realism, are characteristic of Betsi production.

In addition to the different stylistic nexuses brought to light by ethno-morphological studies, some works could come from the same workshop, or be the work of the same artist, whose name has not been passed down. The reliquary guardian in the former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection can be compared to a Betsi Fang statue currently conserved at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and a second from the Roland Tual collection, published by Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro in 1929. With the exception of a few details, these works produced during approximately the same period and whose presence in France has been confirmed since the 1920s, bear striking similarities in their morphological, stylistic and iconographic structure. As such, as underlined by Louis Perrois “although it is relatively difficult to say with certainty that they were made by the same ‘hand’, there no doubt that they come from the same region, that of the Betsi/Mekè Fang of Gabon - between the Crystal Mountains and the Ogooué - and that they were made during the same period (19th century)”.

Handicraft and adornments

According to Louis Perrois, “each statue referred allusively and through certain details of the decoration to more or less well known deceased people or to their lineage”. Although the patina speaks to the numerous libations undergone by the effigy, the artistic choices involved in its production also convey meaning. Particular attention has been placed on the sensory organs, and more particularly on the protruding ears. This emphasis on the hearing organ could suggest the ability to detect the inaudible: the voice of the ancestors responding to the invocations of the living. The subtle tension between the visible emptiness and form in the positioning of the forearms and the hands joined at the plexus and almost entirely blending into the cup they are holding are evidence of the high sculptural quality of the work.

The iconography of the bowl seen on some Fang reliquary figures makes reference to the offering cup containing the oils used for the libations applied to the skulls of the ancestors and to the reliquary figure. This image may also be a reference to rites of birth, during which the umbilical cord of the newborn was placed in this type of cup. The cup was also used to hold the composition of medicinal herbs with protective virtues that was mixed into the newborn’s bath. This connection between ancestral symbolism and birth can be substantiated by the formal choices characterising the Fang reliquary figure, whose structure gives tangible form to the cyclical nature of life and death, according to some. Morphological characteristics connected to childhood (round head and eyes, short limbs, protruding navel and rounded stomach) are thus combined with features of fully-fledge and gendered men and women. The body’s structure thus represents this cyclical movement and the fundamental role that the ancestors play in all stages of life and the community, from birth to death, and in the continuity of the lineage.

Detail of the Betsi Fang reliquary guardian © musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, photo Claude Germain
Detail of the Betsi Fang reliquary guardian © musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, photo Claude Germain
Detail of the Betsi Fang reliquary guardian © musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, photo Claude Germain

Details of the Betsi Fang reliquary guardian © musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, photo Claude Germain

The Fang are also renowned for their highly sophisticated adornments, which express social status. The production of their headpieces, hairstyles and body art such as scarification, their tattoos and their pointed teeth left a strong impression of 19th century Europeans. The coiffe seen here provides an example of an ancient type of headpiece with a central ridge and a neck guard. These headdresses, called nlo-o-ngo, were worn by the Fang up until the early 20th century.

History of the work and its background

An extraordinary survivor of one of the greatest ‘classic’ Fang styles, this piece from the former collection of painter Georges de Miré (1890-1965) was one of the first Fang reliquary works to arrive in Europe between the late 19th and early 20th century. Georges de Miré shared this singular taste for ‘African Art’ in particular with his cousin and close friend the painter Roger de La Fresnaye (1885-1925), who wrote in a letter dated 1913 “I feel an intense yet infinitely vague need, a force, an emotion. It is like love with no object. Sometimes chance shows me something that at first glance seems to contain that which I am searching; a photo of Giorgione for example; and this morning, at an antique dealer who sells African wood carvings. […] I was very tempted by a small head in the form of a vase; he asked a high price for it; I searched my pockets and he accepted to take what I had, leaving me 4 pennies for the tramway. And so I left with my little African carving, astounded to see the sun shining brighter, the crowds more joyful, and life itself better. I brought the carving to my studio this afternoon: I was not disappointed, and, just as the Osram lamp so brutally eclipses candlelight, as soon as I placed it on my shelf, my little carving obliterated the charm of my La Clayette statue and the dignity of my painted plaster statuette! What is this mysterious essence whose existence we glimpse, that floats all around us, that we try to reach but which remains elusive and which mockingly settles on a carving made by savages?”

After having loaned several works for pioneering exhibitions in the field of so-called ‘primitive’ arts, such as Les Arts indigènes des Colonies françaises in 1923 and the famous exposition d’art africain et océanien at the Théâtre Pigalle gallery in 1930, Georges de Miré sold the 166 pieces in his collection, including 112 African works, on 16 December 1931. The scale of this auction was so considerable that it was mentioned in articles across the Atlantic. Contributing to the shaping of this new perception through their artistic quality, many of these pieces where exhibited at the Charles Ratton gallery at 14 rue de Marignan, and are now considered ‘absolute masterpieces’. It was the collector and close friend of Paul Guillaume, Nico Mazaraki, who acquired the Betsi Fang reliquary figure as part of the sale of the Georges de Miré collection. It quickly joined the Albert Kleinmann collection where it stayed for several decades, more recently joining that of Adam Lindemann in New York, and finally that of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.

Far removed from its original context and its original function, the status of work of art, acquired in Europe as of the early 20th century and assigned by a small circle of enlightened amateurs, is illustrated by a seemingly trivial element: its base made by Japanese mount maker Kichizô Inagaki (1876-195). Ground-breaking for the era, these stands made from sober, solid wood with a specific finish, making the veining visible, were designed not simply as supports but to mould perfectly to the objects. For William Fagg, the mounts made by the “almost legendary Inagaki […] are […] as precious as the objects they support”. Kichizô Inagaki was born in the village of Murakami. After winning third prize in the national contest for lacquer masters and studying fine arts in Tokyo, he moved to Paris in 1906. He soon began making pedestals for various non-European and archaeological works for the greatest Parisian antiques dealers like Paul Guillaume (1891-1834) and Joseph Brummer (1883-1947), whose customers notably included the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Awed by the work of Kichizô Inagaki, with whom he became very close, the latter asked him to make the pedestals for his expansive antiques collection. They worked together from 1912 up until the sculptor’s death in 1917. The creations stamped with the now-famous calligraphic seal ‘Yoshio’ - Kichizô Inagaki’s professional name - are now important indicators of origin (dealers, collectors and artists emblematic of inter-war Paris) and the recorded presence of the work in Europe between 1910 and 1951. Charles Ratton gave one of the rare descriptions of this master plinth-maker who was both talented and discreet in equal measures, who he met through Georges de Miré: He brought with him not only his charm and sophisticated taste, but also a large number of tools made by himself. […] His reputation was very quickly established thanks to his sense of volume and love of wood. It was in the company of Georges de Miré, one of the greatest collectors of our generation after Albert Barnes and Franck Haviland, that I visited him for the first time. I then returned on very many occasions, because it was hugely pleasurable to watch him at work surrounded by his customers and friends, keen to engage in conversation, even though his entire attention was focused on creating bases or restoring objects. His workshop became a well-known meeting place. […] I can also remember meeting André Breton there on one occasion.”

Selected bibliography & cartography

Maps

Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.

 

Publications

DU CHAILLU, Paul Belloni, Voyages et aventures dans l’Afrique équatoriale, Paris, Lévy Frères, 1863.

FALGAYRETTE-LEVEAU Christiane, LABURTHE-TOLRA Philippe, Fang, Paris, Musée Dapper, 1991.

FALGAYRETTE-LEVEAU Christiane, DELORME Gérard, LEVEAU Michel, Gabon. Présence des esprits, Paris, Musée Dapper, 2006.

GUILLAUME Paul et MUNRO Thomas, La Sculpture nègre primitive, Paris, Éditions G. Crès & Cie, 1929.

HOURDÉ Charles-Wesley, « Kichizô Inagaki. Dans l’ombre des Grands du XXe siècle » in Tribal Art Magazine, Winter 2012, n° 66, pp. 96-105.

JOUBERT Hélène (Dir.), Éclectique : Une collection du XXIe siècle, Paris, musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ; Flammarion, 2016, pp. 100-101.

KERCHACHE Jacques, PAUDRAT Jean-Louis, STEPHAN Lucien, L'art africain, Paris, Mazenod, 1988.

LA GAMMA Alisa, Eternal Ancestors: the Arts of the Central African Reliquary, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.

LE FUR Yves (Dir.), Musée du quai Branly : La collection, Paris, musée du quai Branly ; Skira-Flammarion, 2009, pp. 82-83.

LE FUR Yves (Dir.), Forêts natales, Arts d’Afrique équatoriale atlantique, Paris, musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ; Actes Sud, 2017.

MARQUETTY M.V., Exposition d’art Africain et d’art océanien, Paris, Galerie Pigalle, 1930.

MURPHY Maureen, De l'imaginaire au musée : les arts d'Afrique à Paris et à New York, 1931-2006, Saint-Etienne, Presses du réel, 2009.

PERROIS Louis, Arts du Gabon. Les Arts Plastiques du Bassin de l’Ogooué, Paris, O.R.S.T.O.M ; Arnouville, Arts d’Afrique Noire,1979.

PERROIS Louis, Art ancestral du Gabon, Geneva, Musée Barbier-Mueller, 1985.

PERROIS Louis, SIERRA DELAGE Martha, L’Art Fang de Guinée équatoriale, Barcelona, Fondación Folch ; Paris, Le Cercle d’Art, 1991.

PERROIS Louis et SAVARY Claude, Le Gabon de Fernand Grébert, 1913-1932, Geneva, Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, 2003.

PERROIS Louis, « Les Fang du Gabon : un peuple soucieux des apparences. L’art décoratif des Fang du Sud-Cameroun, Rio Muni et Gabon au XIXe siècle » in Kaos. Parcours des Mondes, n° 4, septembre 2004, pp. 90-125.

PERROIS Louis (Dir.), L’Esprit de la forêt. Terres du Gabon, Bordeaux, Musée d’Aquitaine ; Paris, Somogy, 1997.

PERROIS Louis, Fang, Milan, 5 Continents, 2006.

RUBIN William (Dir.), Primitivisme dans l’art du XXe siècles. Les artistes modernes devant l’art tribal, 2 vol., Paris, Flammarion, 1987.

TESSMANN Günter, Die Pangwe : Völkerkundeliche Monographie eines westafrikanischen Negerstammes. Ergebnisse der Lübecker Pangwe-Expedition 1907-1909 und früherer Forschungen 1904-1907, 2 vol. Berlin, Wasmuth Verlag, 1913.

TESSMANN Günter, Die Pangwe. Mit einem Geleitwort des Verfassers, New York, Johnson Reprint Corp., 1972.