This outstanding four-faced helmet mask pertains to a very dynamic time in the evolution of F’ang society. It is very large and dome-shaped, with a central black coiffure that rises to a peak from the apex of each of the four faces. These are in the classical F’ang style, with a reductivist T-bar nose and eyebrows, slit eyes and low-lighting/detailing using black paint on the otherwise white surface. The base of the mask is surrounded by a series of small holes, suggesting that it was originally worn with a raffia or cloth costume that would effectively conceal the identity of the wearer. The faces are further separated from each other by “ears” painted in dark paint, and by a small dark semi-circle projecting about an inch above the base of the mask. The piece has suffered damage commensurate with its age, but has also acquired a good patina of usage.
The Fang are perhaps the best-known tribal group in Africa in terms of visual arts. Indeed, so much attention has been paid to their astoundingly accomplished artistic oeuvre that comparatively little is known of their cultural and historical background. Their current territory is Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, although they are known to have migrated to these areas over the past few centuries from their original heartland in the northeast. Their general métier is that of warriors, which partially explains the somewhat martial and fierce appearance of their figural works. Their success at conquest means that they are spread over a very wide area, consequently leading to a proliferation of artistic substyles under a recognizable general style. They also intermarried with local tribes such as the Betsi, the Ntumu and the Ngumba, giving rise to yet further diversity of art styles. They are connected by similar belief systems, especially including a heavy reliance upon ancestor worship to validate their actions and protect them from evil; this preoccupation has transferred itself to their material culture.
F’ang ancestor worship means the retention of ancestors’ remains inside specially made bark containers (reliquaries – nsekh byeri), which are protected by reliquary figures or heads known as “byeri”. This system probably evolved because of the high level of mobility practiced by early Fang populations, and so that ancestors’ remains could be continually present even during military campaigns. The spirits were appeased in a variety of ways, and were always kept close to the family whose ancestors they were. The figures were often decorated with copper and other materials, and many examples still exude the oils and other offerings with which they were endowed. The F’ang are also known for their everyday items – such as bells, gongs, tools and other objects – which are decorated with their distinctive artistic motifs. They are particularly renowned for their mask usage, however, notably for the famous N’gil mask. The society responsible for judicial authority in the F’ang area was above all regional power, and use these simplistic polychrome masks to frighten confessions from the guilty and test the resolve of the innocent. While they look comparatively harmless today, white was always seen as a colour of death, or spirits, while the concealment of the mask from the public would heighten its impact as it was suddenly glimpsed by firelight, the identity of the wearer concealed beneath a raffia costume. All of these objects played a major role in the development of western art styles in the 1920’s drive towards expressionism, cubism and primitivism in Paris, in the hands of such luminaries as Picasso, Modigliani and Brancusi.
However, the F’ang N’gil tradition was outlawed by French colonials at the start of the 20th century, and it was shortly afterwards that this form – Ngontang – first appeared. It is believed to represent a spirit of the dead visiting as a young white woman, and it was used as a masquerade item during festivities surrounding funerals and births. It may also have had a secondary role – of detecting witches, which is perhaps why it has so many faces (for instance, the Luba tribe produce multi-headed divination devices that are believed to be more perceptive than a single-headed piece). The colour is – again – white, the colour of the ancestors’ world, and te ethnographic data tat exist all suggest that the masks had a strong impact on the F’ang.
This beautiful and historically significant mask would be a major addition to any serious collection of African art.