Fang, Gabon; wood, brass. Size: 11″ h, 6″ w, 5.25″ d.
In Gabon and other African subculture, reliquary figures are important. The spiritual connection between the living and the dead takes physical form through reliquary (receptacle for keeping or displaying sacred relics) that represent revered ancestors. According to experts on Fang art, reliquary heads, compared to full length guardian figures, are indisputably rare. The heads are generally only sculpted in the southern Fang area, and might belong to the ethnic group, the Betsi, known to have the “ekuma” coiffure. The coiffure, with its bundle of hair falling stylistically in the back of the head, top with a braided arrangement on top, are found in works of this group.
The reliquary head here features adornment of brass, a material that signifies wealth and prestige because it is regarded as a semi-precious metal, and because of its tie to long-distance trade. The shiny metal is also associated with day-light, and may have been applied to the head to strengthen its defense against intruders of the night when the forces of evil are thought to be strongest. The shiny eyes convey spiritual power and add drama when the figure was used in rituals.
This head has many typical Fang features, and also many distinctive ones. It has an elongated neck supporting a conical-shaped face with rounded cheeks that tapers at the lower face, a slender nose, an exaggeratedly wide open brass-plated pendulant mouth showing teeth, arrow-shaped brass ears, and brass-plated saucer-shaped sunken eye sockets with staring beady eyes. On the forehead is a triangular brass tack stretching from the top of the nose to the hairline, and a scarification band that stretches across the top of the forehead from ear to ear. The use of hammered brass on so many features serve a social function, that of establishing prestige as only the very rich could afford to buy this metal, and in a minor way, the artist’s wish to display the piece as an object of beauty.