The Fang were once an itinerant people, whose animist cult, bieri, was devoted to ancestor worship. Their statues had reliquary boxes attached, which the Fang carried with them. Without a reliquary box, a statue lost its power.
They had a secret society called Ngil (gorilla), accessible only to men. Its purpose was to initiate new members and persecute adulterers, thieves, debtors, poisoners, and those who dealt with society disrespectfully. The Ngil mask, painted with white kaolin to invoke the power of the deceased, represented a horrific spirit designed to eradicate evil. The character would appear suddenly in the dark, illuminated by torchlight. It was a terrifying experience.
When the Europeans came, especially English, Dutch, and French traders in the 16th Century, the Fang mostly settled in Equitorial Guinea, Cameroon, and Gabon. In 1910 Gabon became part of French Equatorial Africa, which was when French colonial officers banned the Ngil mask.
However, through colonial trade ships, African art reached France.
African masks and sculpture became attendant muses to Cubism. As Picasso, a noted collector, pioneered the movement with Georges Braque from 1910 to 1920, European artists paid no attention to the original cultural significance. They were only interested in integrating African art’s simple forms, bold lines, and open designs into their own philosophy.
One of the artists most deeply influenced was Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). In 1909, an ambitious art dealer named Paul Guillaume wanted him to try sculpture, so he became Constantin Brancusi’s apprentice for a year. After Brancusi introduced him to African sculpture, Modigliani rejected Art Nouveau and Impressionism. Instead, he painted studio portraits with a Cubist palette of black, browns, greys, off-whites, red ochre, and burnt sienna. His style was unique.
There may never have been a Modigliani face had he not seen the Ngil masks of the Fang people of Gabon.
Indeed, Modigliani’s sculpture, “Tête,” shown at the 1912 Cubist exhibit in the Salon d’Automne, sold at Christie’s for $52.6 million on June 14, 2010.
So we have yet another story of African design being banned by European colonialists determined to replace indigenous culture with Christianity, exploit natural resources, engage in the slave trade, and conquer land, while European artists interpreted the same objects and advanced Western intellectual history.