Reliquary guardian figure (eyema-o-byeri)

Attributed to

Master of Ntem ( Gabonese, 1800 - 1860 )

Mvaï group, Fang peoples
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General Description

Beginning in the 18th century, ancestors of the Fang peoples migrated from the northeast into southern Cameroon, Rio Muni, and Gabon. Believing that their forebears were concerned about and could affect their well-being, Fang venerated the ancestors who were left behind. Those venerated included the founder of the lineage and successive lineages, clan or family heads, and extraordinary women who were believed to have supernatural abilities and who bore numerous healthy children. Precious relics such as ancestral skills and bones, along with precious beads, potent substances with magical properties (medicine), and other spiritually charged objects were kept in containers made of bark or woven plant fibers. A post projecting from a standing or seated guardian figure like this one fastened it to the lid of the bark reliquary box, which was kept in special shelters or repositories. The sculpted guardian protected the relics from malicious humans and evil spirits and served as a point of contact between the ancestral relics and designated family members.

This reliquary guardian is attributed to the Master of Ntem, a sculptor who lived on the upper Ntem River in northern Gabon and was active between about 1800 and 1860. The figure, with rounded thighs and thick calves, is carved in a seated position. The massive head, elegant hairstyle with three triangular braided crests, and robust, muscular body typify the Mvai region style of carving. A headband with pompoms covers its ears. Feathers affixed to the headdress by metallic chains, earrings, iron or copper necklaces and bracelets, and glass beads originally adorned the figure. Hands holding an offering cup are incised rather than carved and have a band of scarification that terminates at the herniated navel. The feet have broken off. The intense gaze of tiny shell eyes and bared teeth present an attitude of vigilance and defense. The stem at the back of this figure was inserted into the lid of the container.

Reliquary guardian figures were also used as puppets in a ritual called mélan, a rite of appeasement. During the course of their initiation into adulthood, boys learned about the history of their people, which is marked by migrations and the need for portable objects, including the reliquaries. The practice of making reliquaries for ancestor worship ceased in the early 20th century when the French colonial government banned the reliquaries and their priests.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 198-199.