This solemn piece is a drum, made by the Bongo group of the Sudan. It comprises a hollow trunk that has been shaped to cylindricality and then tapered slightly towards the apex, where the neck is defined by a double horizontal flange. The body of the drum is bare except for a sound hole about three quarters of the way up. The neck is thick, leading to a round head that has been flattened to make a face; this has very reduced features placed dead centre. These comprise a triangular nose, a small, pursed mouth and remarkably tiny eyes inlaid with white material (shell?) that end a rather hypnotic appearance. The wood is unpainted and undecorated, but it has acquired a glossy, golden patina from age and usage.
The Bongo are a powerful tribe in East Africa, and may have had an extremely long history, judging from as-yet unanalysed archaeological remains. They are related to the Belanda, the Sara and the Gato. Historically, they moved from Chad to Southern Sudan in the 16th century. Their society was highly mobile at one stage, so their artistic output was generally small in terms of scale (and volume). When forced into sedentism due to agrarian land reform acts and the effects of European imperialism, their economy was based upon sorghum and millet farming. They suffered greatly at the hands of slave traders in the late 19th century, and have only recently started to rebuild their numbers.
Their artworks include masks (very rare) and everyday items such as neckrests, but they are best known for their grave markers – tall posts with anthropomorphic features – carved from mahogany which resists weathering and termites. The posts are awarded to worthy people, such as chiefs, and information about them (the number of men/animals the killed etc) is rendered as part of the carving process. Their religion is based around a creator god named Loma, who can be reached through grave markers and other pieces of public art; the bereaved populace will usually celebrate to excess so that the deceased can better use his influence with Loma to improve the lot of those he left behind. The large posts are usually surrounded by a host of smaller figures that represent family members. Other artworks are associated with the altars hunters raise to Loma-Gubu, the antithesis of Loma, and who must be appeased by appropriate behaviour from the hunter and his wife.
Large gongs such as this are exceptionally rare; the function is unknown, but they are likely to have played a role in ceremonies and rituals rather than in secular procedures. The schematic handling of anthropomorphic features is exceptional, and the Bongo are prominent exponents of the geometric reductivism which made African art such a powerful force in the formation of 20th century European art styles. However, it is remarkable because it is what it is, not what it influenced. It is a powerful and imposing piece of African art that would suit any collection or sophisticated domestic setting.