For the Fang people of Equatorial Guinea, South Cameroon and Gabon, the worship of ancestors — a practice known as byeri — has historically been of primordial importance, as is the belief in the power of ancestral relics.
As the Fang peoples moved into southern Cameroon and northern Gabon over centuries, families brought with them bark boxes filled with the skulls or bones of their forebears. These boxes were topped with carved heads or sculpted figures that at once evoked the ancestors and served to protect the contents of the reliquary boxes. The figures would have been consulted at important moments such as initiation rites, or in instances of conflict or death, or for advice on more quotidian matters, like hunting or fishing.
On 10 April, a 19th-century Fang reliquary figure will be offered in the African, Oceanic and American Art sale at Christie’s in Paris. Conceived by a master Fang sculptor, it is among the body of work considered the epitome of African classicism.
The figure’s execution reflects the principle of balance that is key among the Fang. Its legs are muscular and tensed, but the head is large and childlike; its arms are raised alongside the body but the overall pose is static; two circular eyes — brass discs fixed with metal pins — animate an otherwise passive expression. The art of the Fang has recently been celebrated by a major exhibition at the Parisian Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, including more than 40 Fang statues, once more confirming its central place in African art.
The statue’s smooth, heavily oiled surface is another Fang hallmark. The process of ritual purification of these figures involved their frequent anointment with palm oil. The glow resulting from their having been fully saturated with this substance over many generations gives them an ‘alluring, vital quality that enhances the figure’s power and is part of what continues to fascinate us,’ says Susan Kloman, Head of African and Oceanic Art at Christie’s.
By the First World War, Fang statuary had pride of place in the homes of sophisticated European collectors and was touted by avant-garde art critics. In Paris, art dealer Paul Guillaume (1891-1934) became their most vocal proponent. ‘In 1914 — even before he started exhibiting African art in Paris — Guillaume lent 18 sculptures from Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire from his collection to experimental exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in New York,’ explains Kloman.
Guillaume is also famous for being one of the first dealers of Modigliani, and the strong bond between the two men is evident in the three portraits of Guillaume in the recent Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern in London. ‘His 1916 portrait of Max Jacob in the same exhibition somehow recalls the present Fang statue,’ says Bruno Claessens, Christie’s European Director of African and Oceanic Art. ‘Both enlarged foreheads are very similar, so we could hypothesise that Modigliani saw the statue at Guillaume’s place.’
Paul Guillaume in his apartment in Paris, circa 1916-17
In 1926, Guillaume wrote of African sculpture: ‘Artists like Picasso and Matisse… have found it a confirmation of their beliefs and a stimulus to go farther along that road. Several other prominent contemporaries, especially Modigliani and Soutine in painting, Lipchitz and Modigliani in sculpture, owe an obvious debt to African art.’
But Guillaume was quick to note that if African art was a source of ‘creative forces that may prove to be inexhaustible’, it was also ‘essentially inimitable’: Western artists may have made distinctly creative use of African art, he wrote, but ‘some of its power is apt to be lost in modem versions’.
Installation view of the exhibition dedicated to André Derain, featuring the Fang sculpture, organised by Paul Guillaume at the Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York, 1933. The presence of this Fang figure in the exhibition was recently rediscovered in an astonishing 2017 recreation of the 1933 show by Bernard de Grunne at Almine Rech Gallery. The present statue stands on the end of the table
The Fang statue offered at Christie’s on 10 April entered Guillaume’s personal collection at some point before 1933. In that year, he organised an exhibition in the Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York featuring Fang statuary in conversation with the work of André Derain. The Fang sculptures then travelled to the Chicago Arts Club as part of an exhibition called Early Heads and Statues from the Gabon Pahouin Tribe — the first American exhibition dedicated to a single African artistic tradition.
The statue remained hidden from view from 1933 until 1965, when Guillaume’s exceptional collection of African art was sold at auction in Paris. Offered again at Christie’s London in 1980, it has since remained in a distinguished American collection. ‘Its reappearance on the market is a not-to-be-missed event,’ confirms Claessens.