Gabon; Fang, Betsi group
Wood, metal, palm oil; 18 5/16 x 9 3/4 x 6 5/8 in. (46.5 x 24.8 x 16.8 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.229)
The Fang peoples historically derived a sense of continuity with their past and communal cohesiveness in the present through an ancestral cult known as bieri. Bieri figures exemplify the qualities the Fang admire in peopletranquility, vitality, and the ability to hold opposites in balance. These ideals are shown in the balanced forms of the figures.
The formal features of this Fang reliquary sculpture powerfully influenced modernist artists who began collecting non-Western art during the early twentieth century. This particular work, admired for its balanced symmetry and juxtaposition of straight lines and sinuous curves, became part of the collection of Sir Jacob Epstein in the 1920s. In Fang society, sculptural representations produced for the bieri cult were accessories that complemented a reliquary container. In this instance, the generalized representation of the ancestors embodied by the sculpture has been separated from the specific individuals who were memorialized and addressed through their relics in time of need. The shiny reflective surface is the result of repeated applications of palm oil, a process also replicated on the surface of bieri initiates' bodies.