Held in a private Belgian collection for almost half a century, this rare Fang Ngil mask from Gabon is the highlight of the upcoming African and Oceanic Art sale at Christie’s in Paris. Specialist Bruno Claessens explains why
‘There are only about a dozen masks of this type still in existence,’ explains Bruno Claessens, Head of African and Oceanic Art at Christie’s in Paris, ‘and this is one of the last of this quality still in private hands.’
Ngil masks were worn by the Fang people in Gabon and have long been considered to be one of the ‘holy grails’ of African art. In 2006, a Ngil mask from the Vérité Collection made auction history by selling for €5.5 million — at the time, and for several years thereafter, the highest price ever for an African work of art at auction.
Ngil masks influenced the work of a number of artists of the French avant-garde, including Amadeo Modigliani, says Claessens, who notes similarities between this mask and the Italian artist’s depiction of his subjects with elongated features. ‘You have this beautiful structure of pure geometric shapes that forms the face,’ he observes.
‘We know that several of these masks were available to be seen in Paris in the early 20th century,’ Claessens continues, ‘and in addition to Modigliani, artists such as Picasso, Braque and Derain were clearly fascinated and inspired by them.’
The height of the mask — 60 cm — is indicative of its use as a ceremonial object. It would have been worn by a member of the Ngil, a secret brotherhood responsible for policing and administering justice in Fang communities. ‘The Ngil operated at night,’ says the specialist, ‘and one can only imagine the impact of a white mask such as this, as part of a full costume, emerging from the darkness.’ The white colour is made from ground kaolin, a soft clay, and refers to the spirit world.
The mask was meant to depict a terrifying entity, and it was used in ceremonies that involved spectacular dances. ‘You can view the Ngil as agents of social control,’ explains the specialist. ‘In simple terms, the ceremonies mainly consisted of frightening those who had evil intentions. This mask was made to impress, and even now, so far removed in time and place from its origin, it still succeeds in doing that.’
By the late 1920s, however, the French authorities had outlawed these traditions, causing the masks to become increasingly rare. Before last year, this mask had last been seen in public in 1963 as part of an exhibition of African art at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. It was then owned by Jacques and Denise Schwob, who had acquired it in 1948 from Réné Withofs, a Belgian dealer. Withofs had sourced it from a French colonial doctor who had worked in Gabon between 1910 and 1940, and had assembled an important group of Fang objects, including two Ngil masks.
‘What’s interesting,’ says Claessens, ‘is that one of the masks from the same provenance [formerly in the famed Gustave and Franyo Schindler collection] was lent to several acclaimed exhibitions and published extensively, while this example has remained hidden for almost a half a century at the Schwob residence. Jacques and Denise Schwob always considered it to be their most prized possession.’