Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Male Reliquary Figure (Nlo Bieri)

19th–20th century
Fang peoples
Wood, palm oil
H. 13 15/16 x W. 5 x D. 4 3/8 in. (35.4 x 12.7 x 11.1 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 352
In the dense rainforests of the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and southern Cameroon, a widespread belief in the spiritual power of ancestral relics among Bantu peoples underlay the creation of remarkable works of art. 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. Over three centuries, a southwesterly migration into present-day southern Cameroon and northern Gabon occurred village by village, resulting in the loosely structured fluid nature of Fang society today. During its travels, each Fang family brought a bark box containing the skulls of its ancestors. A carved head or figure mounted on top of each reliquary box guarded the sacred contents against the forbidden gaze of women and uninitiated boys. The earliest reliquary guardians were heads, but by the beginning of the twentieth century busts and full figures were also being made. By the 1950s the role of bieri in Fang culture was replaced by a syncretic religion known as bwiti. Bieri figures exemplify the qualities the Fang admire in people--tranquillity, vitality, and the ability to hold opposites in balance. These ideals are shown in the balanced forms of the figures. The large head of an infant is juxtaposed with the fully developed body of an adult, and a static symmetrical pose and passive expressionless face are counterbalanced by the tension of bulging muscles.
Paul Guillaume, Paris; [Julius Carlebach Gallery, New York, until 1951]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1951, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, April 1959–1978

The American Federation of Arts. Primitive Art Masterworks: an exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Primitive Art and the American Federation of Arts, New York. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1974, no. 83.

Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 125.

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