This rather enigmatic piece has been attributed to the Yaka people of what used to be Zaire. It is a truly remarkable object. Standing full-square, it represents a humanoid male figure with short, flexed legs, an elongated torso, a columnar neck and long arms with the hands resting on the abdomen. The central aspect of the chest and abdomen are marked with a long, raised line. The head is not human, and appears to be sculpted into the form of – or a mask of – an owl, with high arches for the round eyes, small “ears” atop the head, and a hooked beak. Detailing below the neck is minimal, and all recessed areas of the sculpture are marked with pale pigment that probably relate to libations. There is no apparent deliberate painting, and the only other adornment is a fragment of textile wrapped around the waist and tied at the side.
The Yaka are based along the Wamba River in Gabon and what was once SW Zaire, although they originally migrated from Angola in the 16th century. Their economy is partly agrarian but hunting remains very important socially. They are closely related to the Suku, Nkanu, Lula, Hombo and Zombo people. Indeed, they are so similar to the Suku that only their arts can differentiate them. Their society is essentially a kingdom, with a preeminent area chief called the Kiamfu, and a committee of ministers and minor chiefs (Unkwagata) who control social progression through various grades of initiation (n-khanda). Society is patriarchal, and each lineage has a chief who has the power of life and death over lineage members, and pays financial and social homage to the region chief, who in turn pays homage to the king. Other prominent figures include the so-called “Master of the Earth” (responsible for ensuring that there is enough game for all the lineages’ hunters) and the ngoombu (diviner) who practices his art with the help of large wooden drums.
Yaka art is based largely around the court – various regalia, most of it portable and wearable rather than sculptural – and hunting charms (sculptures and even plain logs) that are kept in a sacred enclosure. Biteki sculptures relate to lineages and are used to ward off evil influences, diseases and ill fortune; more negatively, they can also be used to inflict harm on criminals or witches. They are usually hollow-bellied, filled with magical ingredients that are then sealed in place with a resin stopper. They were kept on Mbwoolo shrines. Traditional variants are either two figures attached back to back, or a single figure with two faces and a double set of extremities. The face is painted half red and half white, and dots of these colours also occur on the body. Chief statues are also known, which represent – rather than depict – the chief and his family, and are grouped together as a display of authority. Phuungu sculptures are small statuettes that belong to the chief of a patrilineage, and are wrapped in magical materials so that they are almost spherical. They receive libations of blood to activate their power, and are suspended from the roof of the chief’s hut. Masks are less plentiful than sculptures. They come in two main forms. Kakungu (slightly expressionist wood face with a raffia train) and initiates’ masks, which is a small, polychrome face with the traditional turned-up nose, surrounded by a mass of raffia and other vegetal fibres.
The Yaka produce very specific styles of headrests, which represent overtly sexual motifs such as unclad women, often holding very male symbols such as pestles (which are used by women to process cassava, but represent men, for obvious reasons). Intriguingly, the pestle and the mortar are not shown together, as the direct visual allusion to sex is considered to be too strong and thus inappropriate when preparing meals. Dogs are also often found in Yaka pieces, as these represent hunting – a source of prestige – as well as various unearthly qualities connected with their behaviour and seemingly clairvoyant sense of smell.
As this figure does not have a magical charge, it cannot be a biteki piece, nor a phuungu sculpture. The fact that it includes the image of an owl – a profoundly magical and often evil creature in the opinions of many West African groups – suggests that it would have had some sort of ritual importance, perhaps as a hunting token or something appertaining to the Master of the Earth. Whatever its significance, however, this is an impressive piece of African art.