Akwaya, Cross River/Northern Cameroon, 1440-1630 AD
Skull, glass beads, fabric, resin
Height : 22 cm
Provenance : Aziz Njikam collection, Paris
This extremely rare beaded skull was collected in the village of Akwaya in northern Cameroon, close to the border with Nigeria. It belongs to traditions originating from the Cross River region, a little further north on the other side of the frontier. The lower jaw dangling in a deadful expres- sion, the head recalls some of the very early Ekoi/Ejagham head crests mounted on a human skull.
In his book Arts Anciens du Cameroun, 1986, Pierre Harter identified only half a dozen beaded heads, called atwonzen, originating from the Bamileke and Bangwa country. They were all in- variably made of a wood core covered with woven fabric and threaded with rows of beads. These heads, dating back to the late 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, are depictions of the skulls of enemies. They were worn by the rulers around the neck, attached by a thong of buffalo leather or by a cord of wukari fabric, on ceremonial occasions and during certain warrior dances such as the tso or nzen.
We believe these heads coexisted with real beaded skulls, which Harter observed in situ in the villages of Foto and Fontem in the Bangwa country, but this particular corpus is extremely limited and by repute from local sources only three examples -all related to the Cross River region- ap- peared on the tribal art market in the last few decades. One skull with missing jaw completely covered with complex beadwork was published in Golgotha, M. Doustar (2014), n°7, and another previous example was sold to Pierre Dartevelle through Martial Bronsin in the 1990’s.
A Carbon-14 analysis has been performed on a bone sample from the skull at the Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique (IRPA) in Brussels and the results provided an astounding age range comprised between 1440 and 1630 at 95,4 % of probability. The explanation lies in the fact that skulls were considered as sacred if they belonged to important ancestors, leaders, founders of clan, or important “insignia” if they were trophy heads of ennemies. Therefore, these heads were con- cealed and stored in the Fon’s palace or under the village leader’s authority, and remained there over long period of time.
Upon close examination of the head above, it appears that the beadwork consists of several layers, probably with later additions, embellishment and restoration in situ of damaged beads over time.