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VALLEY 19th and 20th Century African Art: Reliquary Figure (byeri)

Analysis of the Bundu Mask

Identification

Image 179

Reliquary Figure (byeri). Fang peoples (Southern Cameroon). c.19th to 20th century C.E. Wood. 

Content

The bodies of the bieri are shaped like those of an infant, although the masculinity implies an adult. The belly button protrudes a little bit, representing the umbilical cord, which first gave life. Scholars believe the combination of traits represents the life cycle. A large emphasis is place on the head and tubular regions of the body. 

An elongated torso, round head, eyes that look downwards, closed mouth, and clasped arms symbolize a person’s calm and contemplativeness and suggest honor and respect as well as his strength. Defined muscles show the person’s power and strength. The figure has a certain energy that’s ready to spring forth when it’s needed but otherwise maintains a dignified appearance. These objects are ​presented as symbols of unity to the clan. 

Themes: Wealth, power, ancestral veneration, religion, life cycle 

Artistic style: Stylized. The face is stylized and the hairstyle on the figures was popular when the figure is made, representing the Fang culture. 

Context

The Fang used these reliquary boxes with remains rather than put them in a cemetery because they were relatively nomadic. They were maintained by elder men in the community who would put them together and consult them when there was a great decision to be made. 

Image

Map Image

Works Cited/ Resources

Form

Materials: wood

Process: carving

Visual/Physical Elements of Art:

  • Proportion: The figures are symmetrical with great emphasis placed on the head. 
  • Rhythm: The form builds up rhythmically, with each part contributing to the feeling of power. This creates a sense of movement, which draws the eyes from the bottom up to the head. 

Function

These figures were designed to sit on the edges of cylindrical boxes of ancestral bones to guard the bones of important members of society (religious heads, clan heads, special voyagers, craftsmen who were exceptionally talented, women who had borne a large number of children) and potent substances and ensure no harm would come to the ancestral spirits. They could also serve as a warning to others who might come in contact with it who might be harmed (uninitiated men and women. A final purpose is that these figures could be used as puppets for initiation: the relics were removed and placed before the initiates while the elder recites the clan’s genealogy. That is then followed by a “reanimation of the dead” when the figures dance above a screen. 

This was created by the Fang peoples of southern Cameroon. 

Vocabulary

reliquary is a container for relics

talisman is an object with supernatural properties that protects from evil and brings good luck

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