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Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri)

Arts of Africa

Loosely translated as “statue for Byeri” (the cult of ancestral worship), biyema biyeri represent Fang ancestors. Such figures topped bark containers that held the bones of revered ancestors, and also served as puppets during family initiation rites. This figure has childlike proportions and adult musculature, reflecting Fang beliefs about connected life cycles. Its triple braids mimic Mvaï warrior hairstyles. By the time Beauford Delaney created the painting at right, anthropologists had already recognized stylistic similarities among works from the Mvaï cultural region. Like his contemporaries, however, Delaney was more focused on how African works looked than on cultural details. Today, scholars—as well as many artists—recognize the importance of acknowledging who made revered African sculptures. Beginning in the 2000s, art historians determined the styles and the names of Fang master artists. Around 2011 this sculpture was attributed to a master artist from the Ntem River valley.
MEDIUM Wood, iron
  • Place Made: Gabon
  • DATES mid-18th to mid-19th century
    DIMENSIONS 23 × 5 3/4 × 5 in. (58.4 × 14.6 × 12.7 cm)  (show scale)
    COLLECTIONS Arts of Africa
    MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
    ACCESSION NUMBER 51.3
    CREDIT LINE Frank L. Babbott Fund
    RIGHTS STATEMENT Creative Commons-BY
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    CAPTION An Ntem River Valley Master. Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri), mid-18th to mid-19th century. Wood, iron, 23 × 5 3/4 × 5 in. (58.4 × 14.6 × 12.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Frank L. Babbott Fund, 51.3. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: , 51.3_overall_PS9.jpg)
    IMAGE overall, 51.3_overall_PS9.jpg., 2019
    "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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