Figure from a Reliquary Ensemble: Seated Female

19th–early 20th century
Gabon or Equatorial Guinea
Fang peoples, Okak group
Wood, metal
H. 25 3/16 x W. 7 7/8 x D. 6 1/2 in. (64 x 20 x 16.5 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1965
Accession Number:
  • Description

    The Fang peoples derive a sense of continuity with their past as well as a communal cohesiveness in the present through an ancestral cult known as bieri. Bieri reliquary figures, such as the one seen here, embody the qualities that the Fang admire most in people—namely, tranquility, vitality, and the ability to hold opposites in balance. Such wooden figures and heads are placed on top of bark containers that hold the skulls of important clan ancestors. The carved head or figure mounted on top of the reliquary box guards the sacred contents against the forbidden gaze of women and uninitiated boys. Before being removed from Africa, such works were invariably separated from the relic containers that they originally enhanced.

    Sheer physical power and vitality emanate from this female figure, created in the nineteenth century by a Fang sculptor from northern Gabon to serve as a guardian for a sacred receptacle of ancestral relics. The surface of the figure glistens with ritually applied palm oil.

    During the first quarter of the 20th century, European artists and collectors of modern art were exposed to examples of Fang figurative representation and admired their daring abstractions of the human form. Those qualities are especially evident in this masterpiece, which is conceived as a series of autonomous units of volume integrated into a harmonious and idealized being.

    The work has been an artistic landmark since it was first published in 1920 by Henri Clouzot and André Level, the French art critics and early collectors of African art. It was in the collections of both the Fauve artist André Derain and the British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein before it was acquired in 1961 by Robert Goldwater, the director of the Museum for Primitive Art, for Nelson Rockefeller.

  • Provenance

    André Derain, Paris, acquired by 1920; Sir Jacob Epstein, London, until 1962; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1962–1965; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1965–1978

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History