|Master Hands: post scriptum
Masterpieces of Fang Sculpture
by Bernard de Grunne
As published in "Tribal", Summer 2003
|FIG. 3 : MVAE FANG FIGURE first identified by Gunther Tessmann in 1907-1909
and probably destroyed in the bombing of Hagen in 1941
|In the process of preparing the exhibition Mains de Maitres (Master Hands), which was shown in Brussels in the spring of 2001, we had the rare
opportunity to photograph various groups of sculptures attributed to specific artists or ateliers. This article presents for the first time photos of two of
these groups: the Mvae (also Mvai) Fang of the Ntem River Valley and the "skull-head" style of Kota of the Sebe Valley, both in Gabon.
In my essay on classic Fang statuary that appeared in The World of Tribal Arts, Issue 2, June 1994, a number of ateliers that can be associated with
carving sculpture were discussed. Among these, the style of the Mvae subgroup in the Ntem valley represents the quintessence of Fang "way," as it is
described by Louis Perrois. The figures have a massive body, a proportionally important head with hair arranged in three triangular crests,
slender arms held close to the thorax, and a "barrel" abdomen, widened around the navel, which is rendered as a rounded protuberance.(1)
The more beautiful of the two Mvae figures collected in situ by Gunther Tessmann (fig. 3) represents the earliest type reference for this style, first
observed and identified by Tessmann in 1907-1909.(2) The attribution was confirmed by Louis Perrois' ethno-stylistic research some sixty years later,
and his Mvae field informants clearly recognized the style when shown photos of the Tessmann statue.
The formal characteristics of the Mvae style are described above, but the most distinguishing feature is without doubt the elaborate coiffure with three
triangular elements that sweep back from the nape of the neck. This hairdo was encountered and photographed in the Ntem Valley by Captain Cottes
in 1908 during the historic 1905-1908 Cottes Mission along the northern border of Gabon.(3)
An unpublished archive of photos taken of Paul Guillaume's African art collection in 1935 shows that he had thirty-nine Fang statues at the time, seven
of which were in the Mvae style.
Those pieces can be identified as follows:
1. Yale University Art Gallery, #1954.28.37, formerly in the collection of Ralph Linton, height 49 cm;
2. Brooklyn Museum, #51.3, height 58.4 cm, see figs. 1 & 2;
3. Willy Mestach Collection, Brussels, formerly in the collection of Durand-Ruel. Published in Evan Maurer, The Intelligence of Forms, An Artist Collects
AJrican Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1991, fig. 83, page 99, height 65 cm;
4. Baltimore Museum of Art, formerly in the A. Wurtzburger Collection, height 47 cm;
5. Russell Aitken Collection, formerly in the Frank Crowninshield Collection, Christie's, New York, April 3, 2003, lot 67, height 47 cm;
6. Private collection, Paul Guillaume sale. Paris Drouot, November 9, 1965, lot 152, height 54 cm
7. Private collection, formerly in the Helm Collection, see figures 1 & 2.
The following Mvae statues which did not pas through Guillaume's hands, may be added to this group:
8. Private collection, ex-Jacques Kerchactae Scamperle, and Arman, see figures 1 & 2;
9. Dallas Museum of Art #2003MCD, formerly in th collection of Georg Stefan Hamburg. Man Ginzberg, New York, height 50.8 cm;
10. James Ross collection, formerly in the collection of Borro and Ejsenberg, see figs. 1 & 2;
11. Guerre Collection, Marseille, height 53. Published in L. Perrois, Byeri Fang, Marseile 1992, page 214;
12. Seattle Art Museum, formerly in the collection of Katherine White. Published in P. McClusky, Praise Poems, the Katherine While Collection, Seattle,
1984, pages 34-35;
13. Formerly in the collection of Helena Rubinstein; Parke-Bernet, New York, the Helena Rubinstein collection, April 21, 1966, lot 209;
14. Private collection, formerly in the collection of Jacob Epstein, London. Published in E. Bassani & M. McLeod, Jacob Epstein Collector, Poro, Milan,
15. Rietberg Museum, Zurich, formerly in the collec¬tion of van der Heydt, height 58.5 cm. Published in Elsy Leuzinger, African Sculpture, Zurich, 1963,
#109, page 160.
An obvious question is posed by figures 1 and 2, the fronts and profiles of the four Mvae figures that were included in the Mains de Maitres exhibition.
Are we looking at the work of one artist working in this style, or of several? My inclination is to think that they are the product of an atelier or school with
several "hands," some of which show a higher level of quality than others.
Perrois observes that Tessmann was correct in his identification of the two sculptures in his 1913 work. Mvae master sculptors definitely existed. During
Perrois' field research in the area in the 1960s, the names of Mvae sculptors of the past were still remembered in some villages in the area around
Minvoul in the Ntem highlands.
In 1968, these were recorded as:
Edzomo Nde Zog of the Ayong clan
Esabok Mfolombo, and his son Opaminko
Evun Ndong of the Esangwan clan
Alana of the Esesep clan.(4)
Our photos clearly show that the Mvae sculptors enjoyed a certain artistic freedom. Though they respected precise canons of the style, they also
experimented within their structures. The torso is variable in length, the hair shows differences in the degree to which it extends and its curvature varies,
the musculature of the arms is rendered in a number of ways, and the thickness of the lips also shows variation.
1. L. Perrois, "Les Maitres du Ntem: the Mvai Fang sculptors of northern Gabon," in B. de Grunnes, Mains de Maitres, A la Decouverte des Sculpteurs
d'Afrique, Bruxelles, 2001, page 126
2. This statue was published in E. Fuhrmann's Afrika, Sakrakulte Vorgeschichte der Hieroglyphen, Folkwang Verlag, Hagen, 1923, page 75. It was
probably destroyed during the 1942 bombings of the town.
3. Musee de I 'home, #C 45 291 496
4. L. Perrois, Statuaire Fang, Gabon, ORSTOM, Paris, 1972, page 144
5. Louis Perrois, "Le maitre de la Sebe: Les Figures Reliquaires a Tete de Mort de I'Est du Gabon," in B. de Grunne's Mains de Maitres - A la
Decouverte des Sculpteurs d'Afrique, Brussels, Espace BBL, 2001, page 150.
|To see Fang Byeri figures from the Arman Collection and the Monzino Collection, along with Christies and Sotheby's examples:
To see further examples of Fang heads and Byeri figures:
To read about the film, and the round table discussion on the film by Susan Vogel called:
"IDOL BECOMES ART / FANG: An Epic Journey"
CLICK HERE (Let me know if you are interested in viewing this short film) - Email me