Nlo-Byéri Reliquary Guardian Head

This is an important, excellent rendition of reliquary heads depicted with a helmet-type head-crest with two large holes in it possibly for suspension, a bulging forehead, a protruding mouth, and brass or copper nail inlay eyes. This is one of the main examples that influenced many modernist and cubist artists of the late 19th and early 20th century.

This reliquary guardian head made of wood with rich-black patina and copper nails is from the region of Southern Fang tribes and Betsi sub-groups of Gabon. The tribal groups of Gabon share, with variations, a practice of keeping skulls and small bones of lineage ancestors in cylindrical bark boxes or skin-covered baskets surmounted by a guardian figure or head.

The word byeri means ancestor and figures with the same name were made to be placed on the bark boxes called nsek-byeri that contained the skulls of important family members (man or woman). Very few people were allowed to see the contents of the nsek-byeri, and the privilege was usually given to one of the mature sons of the family who was given the responsibility of caring for the byeri objects and maintaining proper rituals. Non-family members were never allowed to see the contents of the nsek-byeri. These relic containers were housed in small huts built for this purpose at a little distance from the village, away from prying or sacrilegious eyes, and were tended by specially appointed elders.

The containers might also include “medicines” such as cowries, snail shells, small animals, seeds, etc., to increase the potency of the ancestral relics. The ancestors’ help was invoked to produce blessings, avert misfortune, and smell out witchcraft or whatever else might be needed in a life surrounded by inexplicable and often dangerous forces. The Fang guardian figures might be whole figures, either male or female, or heads alone.

Provenance: This incredible rare and important artifact was first collected in Europe during the 1930s and later acquired by Michael Wyman in 1970. The piece has been dated as mid to late 19th century by radiocarbon dating or AMS method analyzed from the laboratories of Illinois State Geological Survey; report by Dr. Hong Wang and expert report by Leonard Kahan.

Mid to late 19th century
Ancient wood, copper nails
11 x 4 x 6 in
28 x 10 x 15 cm
Fang people; Gabon, Central Africa