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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Fang : Fang Bellows
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Fang Bellows - GD.122 (LSO)
Origin: Gabon
Circa: 1890 AD to 1930 AD
Dimensions: 39" (99.1cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: wood, mixed media
Condition: Fine

Location: United States
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This intriguing object is the base-section of a set of bellows, made by the F’ang people of Gabon and area. The functional sections of the tool – the leather bellows – were mounted on the circular discs with central pins. Air would have been forced down the central column and into a forge or fire. The finial of the handle, at the end of a long “neck” is rendered as an oval head with a pointed forehead, high arches brows, a triangular nose and a protuberant open mouth. The wood has acquired a good patina from usage and handling.

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.

Utilitarian objects were also decorated with the distinctive F’ang hallmarks, especially heads. Secular items included spoons, bowls, chairs and, more rarely, pieces such as this. Metalworking was a highly skilled, elite occupation in most African societies, and for this reason paraphernalia concerning the trade is rare and desirable. This is an unusual and well-rendered piece of African art.

- (GD.122 (LSO))


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