Fumban, Grassslands, Northwestern Cameroon, 1800-1900
Height : 65 cm
Paul Gebauer, Cameroon, circa 1931-1961
Arnaud Harty de Pierrebourg, Douala
Mireille de Pierreboug, Paris
Bernd Muhlack, Kiel
Nicole and John Dintenfass, New York
Paul Kasmin, New York
The rediscovery of this sculpture of extraordinary expressiveness broadens a small but essential corpus of ancient royal head crests from the Bamum Kingdom. Probably carved before, or during the reign of King Njoya’s (circa 1886-1933), the head displays the typical features and quality of artistry of masks and figures carved at this period. The prominent flat nostrils and ears pointing up, a small grimacing mouth showing its teeth, and especially the large riveted eyes with open corners which seem to have been a particularity of the royal workshop at this time.
When American missionary George Schwab arrived in Fumban in 1930, the production of masks for the colonial market was already flourishing. Nonetheless, as did French researcher Henri La- bouret a few years later, he was able to collect one old mask (Geary, 2011: plate 13), on behalf of the Peabody Museum of Harvard. This particular tungunga (tu: head and ngunga: dance; litteraly: head for the dance) and the present mask could well originate from the same workshop.
On the famous photo of Rudolf Oldenburg (see following page) showing patambuo dancers wear- ing similar head crests, we can clearly notice the stylistic similarities between all the masks. Two head crests in particular seem to have been possibly carved by the same hand : the third one from the left who wear a very comparable headgear, and the one in the far left which leans forward. This latter head crest could well be the example published here. A seventh dancer also appears behind the dancer in the front but we can’t see its head unluckily.
Another important male mask carved probably in the same workshop in the late 19th century, photographed by Oldenburg in 1912 and offered by Charles Ratton in 1935, is now in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. (Harter, 1986: 167)