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Post Lot Text
Beaded heads created for Bamileke royalty, known as atwontzen, are extremely rare. They originate from the kingdoms located in the Dschang region (west of Bamileke country), among the ancient western Bangwa. In 1986, Pierre Harter counted only six – including this one. The other four, illustrated herewith are in the Frum Collection (see Musee Dapper, Formes et Couleurs, 1993, p. 43); former Harter Collection in Harter, op. cit., p. 249; Christie’s New York, Allan Stone Collection (now important Private American Collection), November 12, 2007, lot 632; The Menil Collection, acquired from Philippe Guimiot (Van Dyke, 2008, no. 70); Musée du Quai Branly (73.1992.0.49), also formerly Harter Collection.
These representations consistently portray the skulls of enemies, and are all formed out of a wooden core covered in fabric and decorated with beads, each example offers a unique interpretation. In this case, the expressionism of the features and the intense balance between representation moving into abstraction has the most vitality.
The era from which it originates, the late 18th / early 19th century, is deduced from the genealogy of the "Kemtemelo head" (Roi et sculteurs de l'ouest du cameroun " la panthère et la mygale" Ouvrage de Louis Perrois- Jean Paul Notué, 1997, p. 156; Harter op. cit. p. 157), and confirmed here by the quality of the ancient, granular beads in opaque glass, and some very rare beads in light green and chrome yellow. The age of these beaded heads supports the hypothesis that they coexisted with real beaded skulls, rather than evolved from this practice, as observed by Harter in Foto and in Fontem, among the western Bangwa (including one decorated with the same pattern of radiating rosettes, which this example repeats at the temple and on cheekbones). The cowrie shells emanated from the Indian Ocean and the beads from Vienna and Bohemia, exotic and extremely prestigious trade goods.
Highly symbolic, these depictions of enemies skulls, or the real skulls themselves, were carried by rulers on ceremonial occasions and during certain warrior dances such as the tso or nzen. At the same time, they are overlaid with the symbol of the chief himself, surely a gesture of conquest in the diamond patterns across the forehead. According to von Lintig (‘A Grasslands Beaded Leopard’ in Tribal Arts Magazine, no. 72, 2014, p 111 and 114), this motif is that of the king and symbolizes more than his association with the leopard, but his perceived ability as a were-being to transform into a leopard and access witchcraft to roam as a leopard at night to preside over his subjects. According to Feinboy N'Ketté (interviewed by Harter in 1957, ibid), the atwonzen hung from the neck of the sovereign, "attached by a thong of buffalo leather or by a cord of wukari fabric, and while holding them in their hands [...]they would sway slowly from left to right, clinking together the various cowrie shells of the hair".