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Post Lot Text
HIGHLY IMPORTANT BANGWA, FONTEM, ROYAL MEMORIAL MALE ANCESTOR FIGURE
Nine small Bangwa kingdoms exist, and indeed continue to thrive within the modern nation of Cameroon. Among them is the kingdom of Fontem, where this Bangwa male figure was first acquired. These kingdoms were governed by a highly influential leader, sometimes referred to as a 'King', or Fon, who was at the pinnacle of a royal hierarchy. In the 19th century, these Bangwa rulers and their subjects were tied to a vast trade network reaching to the savannah and forest regions, even to the coast. The first white man that came to Fontem was a German, named Gustav Conrau. However, by the time of his visit, through their sophisticated trade practices, the Bangwa Fon and his subjects were already familiar with European goods, considered 'luxury items'.
Gustav Conrau, a German colonial, collected the Bangwa ruler or king in 1898 or 1899. The figure then spent over 20 years in the Berliner Völkerkunde Museum (Inv.Nr.III C -10518). In 1926 Arthur Speyer acquired the figure probably as the result of a trade. (Between 1926 and 1929, according to the old inventory books, five objects were obtained by Speyer from the museum). Such trades were possible at the time, because huge amounts of ethnographic material were being accessioned from the colonies, and often ignored, because the institutions in Germany at that time lacked the conceptual foundation for viewing these objects as works of art.
Conrau, spent several months among the Bangwa and was also an amateur ethnologist. He recorded the use of the word 'Ataingu' as the name for the 'king', as may be noted in the Berlin Völkerkunde Museum's inventory record. This is a collective term in the local language, used to designate carved figures and masks. He also wrote 'Manyon - left hand broken' (III C 10529) as a note for the 'Bangwa Queen'. Conrau corresponded with Berlin Museum ethnologist Felix von Luschan. For example, on October 1st 1899 (Acta Africa Vol. 21) he wrote that the highest ranking chief, the Fontem Assunganyi, had, in exchange for generous presents, given him permission to buy figures from the local people in the Bangwa kingdoms. He states in his letter that the objects in question have considerable age, and he adds that the Fontem Assunganyi in particular, who was Conrau's political partner, now preferred carvings covered with beads. In another letter, Conrau had sent just previously to Berlin, he had asked v. Luschan for more beads for the king, but apparently this did not occur.
The head of this royal memorial sculpture is crowned with a parted cap. This represents a multi-colored crocheted cotton hat that was shaped by a light bamboo armature. The back of the figure's head is rounded, and the ears are emphasized. A lively expression is imparted to the face through the slightly asymmetrical treatment of its two halves. The mouth is wide open, as if prepared to sing or speak, so that triangular, filed teeth are visible within it. An expressive nose, large almond shaped eyes, and an arched forehead, similar to that of the 'Bangwa Queen', that was also collected by Conrau at the same time, all lend an even greater presence to the piece. The neck and upper body of the 'King' are accentuated with stylized adornments, which probably represent a necklace of glass beads with leopard teeth hanging from them. The shoulders are well formed and powerful. The figure is also rendered wearing armbands and anklets, and holding a calabash in his raised right hand.
The Lefem Society
The 'Bangwa King' was commissioned by a ruler to represent a specific person. As portraits, sculptures of this type rely less on physical resemblance, than on the depiction of specific characteristics of social rank. These include hats, attributes of predators, such as leopard teeth or skins, ivory or metal ornaments, and a calabash containing palm wine. Such insignias of rank were reserved for notables, both men and women. Among the highland Bangwa, such figures were deemed to be among the signs of honor and symbols of the 'Lefem'. The 'Lefem', sometimes described as the 'Gong society', was an association of peers. At gatherings of the 'Lefem', either meetings or ritual performances associated with a feast, the royal memorial statues were displayed in a sacred grove. When not in use, the figures were stored in a reliquary hut, in the attic of a women's house or another hidden location. In pre-colonial times, they were watched over by an appointed guardian in a hut in the sacred grove, in an enclosed wooded area, close to the house of a chief. The royal memorial statues were not necessarily directly associated with ancestors worship, but contributed in a larger sense to the continuity of the community. Most of the time, the sculptures were created while the men or women they represented were still alive, shortly after an inauguration, for instance. Whereas, the deceased ancestors, who were still vitally important in the societal structure, and whose skulls were preserved in wood or clay receptacles placed in special shrines or huts, were regularly called on by all members of Bangwa society.
A Master Carver
Sculptors who worked for the notables of Bangwa society are seen today as the creators of among the most impressive and artistically expressive works of African art. This is certainly true of the master carver who created this 'Bangwa King', and certainly the same artist as the 'Bangwa Queen'. Many formal details, and also the movement and the dancing step that both figures exhibit so apparently, argue convincingly for this attribution. The local sculptors worked without sketches, and had an image of the figures they wished to create in their minds. With his tools, consisting of a machete and various sized arched chisels, the sculptor left signs of his work. A finished figure was rubbed with specific types of leaves, imbued with palm oil, and smoked over a green wood fire until it acquired a brownish-black patina. Tradition defines the iconography of the Lefem figures. However, the leeway for individual artistic interpretation and expression in the creation of the figures, is nonetheless considerable among the Bangwa groups, and is clearly apparent in the viewing of a larger number of figures from the Bangwa area.
The feet of the 'king' resemble the paws of a predator. The similarity of this impressive figure's stance and step to those of a predatory cat is very extraordinary when the sculpture is compared to other Bangwa works of art, and the entire body's representation of movement is also unusual. It is possible that the king's leopard paws relate to widespread beliefs in the Grasslands, concerning the existence of animal doubles for individuals with great magical powers. Only a handful of exceptional works from the same area can be compared with this remarkable figure.
Commentary by Bettina von Lintig, October 2009