If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Figure from a Reliquary Ensemble: Seated Female

Met curator Alisa LaGamma on ancestral worship and mortality in Figure from a Reliquary Ensemble: Seated Female by the Fang peoples of Gabon or Equatorial Guinea, 19th–early 20th century.

The Fang peoples derive a sense of continuity with their past as well as a communal cohesiveness in the present through an ancestral cult known as bieri. Bieri reliquary figures, such as this 19th century example, embody the qualities that the Fang admire most in people—namely, tranquility, vitality, and the ability to hold opposites in balance. Such wooden figures and heads are placed on top of bark containers that hold the precious relics of important clan ancestors. The carved head or figure mounted on top of the reliquary box guards the sacred contents against the forbidden gaze of women and uninitiated boys. Before being removed from Africa, such works were invariably separated from the relic containers that they originally enhanced. 

This formidable female figure personifies controlled exuberance. Despite her contemplative expression, her being exudes vitality and boundless physical dynamism. The eyes are defined as deeply incised pupils within expansive recesses. These concave passages are echoed in the round at the summit of the forehead by the bold globular projections of the coiffure elements. This regal and original arrangement of hair is highly detailed. Several contiguous crests extend across the crown of the head and are gathered in a single vertical tress at the nape of the neck. 

The Fang sculptor, who lucidly articulated this figure as a series of discrete component elements, integrated them masterfully into a seamless form to stunning effect. The pronounced ovoid volume of the head is abruptly juxtaposed with the broad columnar neck. At the outer corner of each eye a deep arc extends to the bridge of the nose. The nostrils are slightly flared, and the open mouth is cast as a broad oval. Especially alluring is the effect of the shimmering highlights that glance off the luminous midnight black wood, which is thoroughly saturated with oil. Another arresting visual accent is provided by the pendent oval breasts. These do not appear as sensuous elements but rather as overt attributes of power. Their formal definition complements the muscular curves of the physiognomy, so that they are echoed in the successively larger cylindrical units of the shoulders, upper arms, and forearms. The arms are bent at the elbows, hands held in front of the body in a pose suggesting arrested animation. 

Positioned as freestanding with slightly flexed knees, the figure appears to shift her weight slightly to the proper right side. The fact that she was originally conceived as seated is apparent from the extreme abbreviation of the powerful thighs, when seen frontally, in contrast to the full forms of the elongated calves. On the reverse side the vertical channel of the spine extends the length of the back and intersects with the horizontal passage of the buttocks. The original patrons sought to repair a break to the proper left shoulderaffixing horizontal metal bands with five nails to the front and reverse side. Two brass rings appear around the neck as well as one around the proper left wrist and each ankle. 

This work was owned successively by two members of the Western avant-garde, André Derain and Jacob Epstein. 

View this work on metmuseum.org

Are you an educator? Here's a related lesson plan. For additional educator resources from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, visit Find an educator resource

Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    The object looks as if it had some major damage in the upper shoulder section ( the statues left shoulder).

    Was this the state of condition when the object was received by the museum? The repair looks sub-par to that of a professional museums restoration techniques.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

I see this work as one of the most powerful artistic representations of woman in the history of art. She’s completely at ease and staring down any kind of gaze. The body is in no way objectified. In the early twentieth century it was owned by several important artists: Andre Derain and Jacob Epstein. And it was a muse to Picasso and Vlaminck. This work provided them with a new visual language to depart from classical antiquity. The artist has distilled the body into individual units – the calves, the thighs, the forearms, the upper arms, the shoulders – united in this body that is pulsating with life. This work was a lifeline for the Fang extended family that commissioned it. This was positioned at the summit of a family altar that was filled with relics, physical bodily matter associated with distinguished ancestors. She served as a guardian, a summation, a distillation of all that was contained within the altar. The deep, inky black of the wood might at first glance reference the race of the subject, but is in fact a reflection on the idea of loss and absence. The work is reflecting on the importance of remembering one’s forbears and their achievements. The artist was trying to represent an ideal woman, a conflation of all the women of an extended family. To me, this is a celebration of the supreme confidence and comfort that a woman who’s at the prime of life feels in her own body. When I relate to it as a living human being, I am acutely aware of the brevity of that moment. It grapples with the thing in life that we’re most familiar with: our own bodily presence.