Bamileke, Grasslands, Cameroon, 1800-1900
Height : 108 cm
Provenance : Allan Stone collection, New York (circa 1970-1980) Sotheby’s, New York, 15 Nov. 2013, lot 89
Author of numerous books about the art of Cameroon, Tamara Northern (Minneapolis, Sept. 2013) wrote of this unique, highly important sculpture, an article titled “A Bamileke Royal Treas- ury Sculpture”.
“The art of the three culture areas of the Cameroon Grassfields—Northwest Province, Bamileke, and Bamum—has in common figures, masks, and associated paraphernalia which are charac- terized by a certain grandeur generated by their volume and height encompassing human and animal features in a visual statement, or declaration, of an exuberant presence well recognized by its collectors in our world as well and foremost by the African practitioners of its use—usually an exalted and restricted one—in the Grassfields.
In the hierarchically structured communities of the Grassfields the negotiation of political and social authority, the governance of the realm, is vested in the relationship between the Fon (king) and the kingdom’s regulatory societies, the Fon being the ultimate sacred and ritual authority based on his access to otherworldly supernatural phenomena, the moral authority of his royal ancestors, and a mystical-magical belief in his invincibility: as long as the Fon moves within the canon sanctioned by history and tradition he is beyond reprove and guarantor of his peoples’ well being. Virtually all of a kingdom’s art in the form of figures and masks serves the purpose of demonstrating this function at critical events such as royal accession rituals and funerals whereby sculpted figures operate/move primarily in the palace context whereas a multiplicity of masks is shared by the regulatory societies of notables in public performances.
This rare sculpture fits within the context of only two other objects (one in the collection of Mur- ray Frum, Toronto; the other in a private collection) approximately sharing its size, figural rep- resentations including nude male and female couples as part of the openwork superstructure, and therewith its importance. This two-tiered sculpture with a massive head as socle for the second tier of a male and female figure flanked by two masks, all facing in opposite directions, can be seen as one of those peak ritual objects of Bamileke realism—strong limbs, shoulders, pectorals/breasts and a well fed belly—celebrating by its monumentality the strength of the kingdom. It would have been a bravura exhibition piece at an important event in the palace context...