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Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri)

Arts of Africa

These five artworks from throughout the African continent display the range of approaches artists have taken to figural representation. They prove that the Western tradition of naturalism— depicting the body precisely as observed in life—is not even remotely the only possibility open to an artist.

The Mossi mask celebrates the female form. While it is not an exact replica of the body, the proportions are relatively balanced. The Yoruba tapper, used with a board to draw images during divinations, was carved with more exaggerated proportions, partly in order to contain it within the functional form of a tapper and the shape of the ivory from which it was carved.

The Fang figure, a masterpiece by a known artist or workshop, has primarily been reduced to a series of basic shapes—cylinders and circles. The legs and hips are conceived as the intersection of two perpendicular cylinders, echoing the cylindrical reliquary box on which the figure sat. The small Nsapo-Nsapo work and the Chamba figure take the abstraction of the human form even further by greatly exaggerating the proportions. The Nsapo-Nsapo example's stretched arms and the Chamba sculpture's outsized hands suggest different emotional states for these two protective figures—a tense anxiety, perhaps, in one and a lumbering aggression in the other.
MEDIUM Wood, iron
  • Place Made: Africa
  • DATES mid-18th to mid-19th century
    DIMENSIONS 23 x 5 7/8 x 5 in. (58.4 x 14.9 x 12.7 cm)  (show scale)
    COLLECTIONS Arts of Africa
    MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
    CREDIT LINE Frank L. Babbott Fund
    RIGHTS STATEMENT Creative Commons-BY
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    CAPTION Master of Ntem. Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri), mid-18th to mid-19th century. Wood, iron, 23 x 5 7/8 x 5 in. (58.4 x 14.9 x 12.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Frank L. Babbott Fund, 51.3. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 51.3_PS1.jpg)
    IMAGE overall, 51.3_PS1.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2007
    "CUR" at the beginning of an image file name means that the image was created by a curatorial staff member. These study images may be digital point-and-shoot photographs, when we don\'t yet have high-quality studio photography, or they may be scans of older negatives, slides, or photographic prints, providing historical documentation of the object.
    CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION The object is a male ancestor figure carved from a single piece of wood wearing a thick copper alloy necklace. The figure was probably attached to a skull basket that was used in connection with ancestor worship. The object is in fair condition. It has several deep splits. One particular split runs from the left side of the buttock, up the spine, over the head, and into the forehead. There is another deep split on the back side of the head. The front half of the proper right foot is missing. From an unknown cause, dry-rot settled on the bottom of the figure under the seat. The original surface is gone leaving a concave depression. The object was fumigated with carbon tetrachloride; the hole was filled with gesso, retouched, and waxed.
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