Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea

The people that are called “Fang” in the geographic or ethnographic literature number 800,000 and constitute a vast mosaic of village communities, established in a large zone of Atlantic equatorial Africa comprising Cameroon, continental equatorial Guinea and nearly the whole north of Gabon, on the right bank of the Ogowe River. Historically the Fang were itinerant, and it is relatively recently that they have settled into this broad area. The migratory existence of the Fang prohibited the creation of ancestral shrines at gravesites. Instead, the remains of the important dead, in the form of the skull and other bones, were carried from place to place in a cylindrical bark box. The great rain forest region where the Fang settled is a plateau of middle altitude, cut by innumerable waters with falls and rapids rendering navigation for the most part impossible, and with a climate typically equatorial. Fang are principally hunters but also agriculturists. Their social structure is based on a clan, a group of individuals with a common ancestor, and on the family.

The ensemble of Fang peoples practice a cult devoted to ancestor lineages, the bieri, whose aim is to both protect themselves from the deceased and to recruit their aid in matters of daily life. This familial cult does not monopolize the Fang’s religious universe, for it coexists with other beliefs and rituals of a more collective character. It is the bieri, or ancestor sculpture, which has most obviously given rise to the making of remarkable wooden sculpture. The statuary of the Fang can be classified into three main groups: heads on long necks, half-figures and full figures, standing or seated. Carved with great simplicity, at the same time they exhibit a high degree of sophistication in the coordination of bulbous forms. The neck is often a massive cylindrical form. The arms have various positions: hands clasped in front of the body (sometimes holding an object); held in front of the chest or attached to it; hands resting on the knees in the seated figures. The navel is often exaggerated into a cylindrical form. Legs are short, stunted. Usually there is a domed, wide forehead and the eyebrows often form arcs with the nose. The eyes are often made of metal roundlets. The bieri would be consulted when the village was to change location, when a new crop was planted, during a palaver, or before going hunting, fishing, or to war. But once separated from the reliquary chest, the sculpted object would lose its sacred value and could be destroyed. The ritual consisted of prayers, libations, and sacrifices offered to the ancestor, whose scull would be rubbed with powder and paint each time. With its large head, long body, and short extremities, the Fang bieri had the proportion of a newborn, thus emphasizing the group’s continuity with its ancestor and with the three classes of the society: the “not-yet-born,” the living, and the dead. The relics were essentially skull fragments, or sometimes complete skulls, jawbones, teeth and small bones. The bieri also served for therapeutic rituals and, above all, for the initiation of young males during the great so festival.

The Fang used masks in their secret societies. The ngil (gorilla) masks were worn by members of a male society of the same name during the initiation of new members and the persecution of wrong-doers. Masqueraders, clad in raffia costumes and attended by helpers, would materialize in the village after dark, illuminated by flickering torchlight. Fang masks, such as those worn by itinerant troubadours and for hunting and punishing sorcerers, are painted white with facial features outlined in black. Typical are large, elongated masks covered with kaolin and featuring a face that was usually heart-shaped with a long, fine nose. Apparently it has been linked with the dead and ancestors, since white is their color. The ngontang dance society also used white masks, sometimes in the form of a four-sided helmet-mask with bulging forehead and eyebrows in heart-shaped arcs. The ngontang mask symbolizes a ‘young white girl’. The so, or red antelope was connected with an initiation that lasted several months; these masks sport long horns.

Musical instruments – like the harp, its ends sculpted into lovely figurines – allowed communication with the hereafter. Blacksmiths bellows, many quite beautiful, were sculpted in the shape of figures; there are also small metal disks featuring heads, called “passport-masks”, the Fang attached these to their arms.

Special spoons were carved and used to administer magically sustaining nourishment as part of traditional initiation rites. An individual man’s spoon was a preciously guarded possession that was carried on his person in a shoulder bag when he traveled and was placed on his tomb when he past away.

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