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Fang Reliquary Figure

The wooden sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum is a sacred guardian of a reliquary, protecting the remains of high-status Fang people. This figure, with its powerful musculature and calm demeanor, symbolizes strength and honor. It's an abstract representation, emphasizing spiritual ideas over naturalistic depiction.
Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri), Gabon, Fang peoples, mid 18th to mid 19th century, wood and iron, 58.4 cm high (Brooklyn Museum) Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Beth] We're here in the Brooklyn Museum, looking at a wooden sculpture, a figure that preformed an important role, it guarded a reliquary. - [Peri] This figure is almost a talisman, in that it was intended to ward off those that might harm the contents of that box. Or, as a warning to others who might come in contact with it and be harmed by it, like uninitiated men and women. - [Beth] So, the contents of the box that this figure guarded were sacred and powerful. - [Peri] They were usually the bones of important members of society, important ancestors, along with potent substances like beads that they may have owned and medicine. - [Beth] So, who constituted a great man for the Fang people? - [Peri] A very high-status noble person who had lived a long and good life. This would include lineage heads, clan heads, special warriors, even craftsmen who were exceptionally talented, as well as women who had borne lots of healthy children. It's believed that the Fang utilized these reliquary boxes with remains, rather than putting them into a more permanent cemetery because they had been nomadic or semi-nomadic. They were probably maintained by elder men in the community who would be in charge of putting them together and consulting them when there was some great decision to be made. - [Beth] The figure has an elongated torso, a large rounded head, eyes that look down, a closed mouth, the arms are clasped together, but there's a sense of very powerful musculature. So, there's a balance between a figure that has a sense of calm and contemplativeness and at the same time, real power and strength. - [Peri] It's almost as though the figure has this coiled up energy, this vitality that's ready to spring forth if it was needed, but otherwise retains a very calm dignified appearance. - [Beth] The top of the head is enlarged. - [Peri] For the Fang, we see an emphasis on the head, particularly the coiffeur, and the tubular nature of the limbs and the body. There's also an emphasis on the herniated belly button which is of course where the umbilical cord first gives life to humans just as this reliquary is guarding the remains of the deceased who have returned back into the spiritual world, waiting for rebirth. - [Beth] So, this particular figure is a male figure, but the Fang also made reliquary guardian figures who were female. - [Peri] These figures also had a second life as puppets during young men's initiations. In other words, they were brought out to educate young men about their ancestors and help young men experience or be in the same place as the essence or the energy of their ancestors who really were the founding fathers, the lineage heads, of their ethnic group. While the face is very typically stylized, the hairstyle was popular when this object was actually made So, we have these three crests and kind of a duck tail in the back which is what Fang men at the time, high-status men, were wearing. - [Beth] When we look at so much African art, we're looking at art that is not naturalistic and intentionally so. The purpose of the object was to express certain spiritual ideas and so we see abstraction. We see eyes that are reduced to half-circular shapes, the cheeks forming these diagonal lines and a kind of reduction to geometric shapes that our historians call abstraction. And we can also note that in the limbs which are very cylindrical and rounded. - [Peri] The artist could have very easily depicted a naturalistic looking figure, but they chose abstraction. This is a conceptual piece, it's about the idea of a reliquary, the idea of this guardian figure, rather than depicting an actual human or how they look in nature, which was not of interest to this Fang artist. The wonderful tension in this figure is the fact that he is suggesting one approach with honor and respect with eyes closed and patience. At the same time, he is suggesting his strength to ward off spirits or humans that may want to disrupt the contents of his box. (gentle piano music)