About the Fang Tribe
Once, the Fang were migratory. Today, this large group occupies a large swath of land across Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. They make a vast continuum of villages. Because the Fang were once itinerant, they carry the remains of their important dead in reliquary boxes with them and do not have instituted shrines. However, they have a strong cult, bieri, devoted to ancestor worship.
The sculptural art of the Fang is closely tied to the bieri, with certain masks and statues devoted to the cult and made only for its members. The Fang are noted both for their masks and their statues. Each kind of their art is grouped into different styles.
Fang statues can be classified into three groups: full figures which can be standing or seated; half-figures; and heads on long necks. The Fangs are masters of both slender and bulbous forms. Their statues have the following features: cylindrical necks, short and stunted legs, exaggerated navels, domed foreheads and arching eyebrows. In the eye sockets of these statues, metal roundlets are affixed. Each of these statues comes with its reliquary box which confers potency on it. The boxes contain whole or fragments of skulls, jawbones, small bones and teeth of the dead ancestor. Without these boxes, the statues are stripped of power and are no longer regarded as sacred.
The Fang consult their statues for all aspects of the communal life from war and moving the village to blessings for the planting season. Two other important functions of the bieri statues are healing and initiation of the young men during the so festival. These statues are fashioned in both long, developed adult anatomical parts and short, jejune ones to portray the Fang's existential belief of three classes of citizens: the living, the dead and the unborn.
For Fangs, masks are made solely for their secret societies. There are four types of Fang masks. The first kind is the ngil or gorilla mask. This type of mask is worn by men of the ngil secret society during their initiation ceremonies and when arresting offenders. It appears at night worn by raffia-clad masquerades who bear torches.
The second class of Fang masks is made for troubadours who travel between the villages. These are long and rubbed white with kaolin. These masks have heart-shaped faces with long noses. They are also used in ferreting out and punishing sorcerers. White is regarded as the color of the dead and it is believed that it is the ancestors who are visiting. The third class of Fang masks is the so mask. It is also called the red antelope. It is used in initiation ceremonies and comes with long horns.
The last class of Fang masks is the most coveted and the most diversely interpreted. It is the four-sided helmet mask (although it is also made as one-, two- and three-sided masks). This is called the ngontang mask. It is also white and said to represent a "young white girl" The four figures on this mask have bulging foreheads and eyebrows arched in heart shapes.
The e ngontang mask is said to represent the spirit of the dead visiting this world as a young white girl. Even though it represents a young girl, only the men of the bieri cult can wear it. There are many interpretations for the four faces, including depicting the four stages of human existence, the four gods in the Fang mythology, four spirits and four relatives. The multiple faces of the mask is generally agreed to, at least, connote heightened vision and awareness and the ability to see beyond the material world into the great beyond. The Fang use the ngontang masks in solemn ceremonies of birth, mourning, village counsels and the expunging of sorcerers.
The Fang people form a close association with their masks, carrying them everywhere and believing in their power to heal, protect and help communicate with the great beyond. For these reasons, they also carry "passport-masks" of small metal disks attached to their arms.
Fang masks are an evocative bunch. By featuring different styles and including both the simple and the multi-faceted, they represent a great example of the diversity of African masks within the same culture. They make a complete short study in the symbolism of African masks. .
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