Fang Tribe of Africa

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Location: Southern Gabon, Cameroon, Africa

Population: 800,000

Language: Equatorial Bantu

Neighboring Peoples: Kwele, Lumbu, Teke

Types of Art: The Fang are best known for their wooden reliquary figures which are abstract anthropomorphic carvings. There are a few in collections that are still attached to the original relics they were meant to protect.

History: The Fang migrated into their current area from the northeast in recent centuries as small groups or families of nomadic agriculturalists. Their militant nature allowed them to sieze land from their weaker neighbors as they moved in.

Economy: The rain forests surrounding the Fang must be subjected to slash and burn techniques, combined with crop rotation to yield agricultural products. By moving crops from year to year, erosion and soil depletion is avoided. The main crops grown are plantains and manioc. Large knives are used to clear the forests, and most of the cultivation is done with a hoe.

Political Systems: The peoples throughout this region of Gabon share similar political systems. Each village has a leader who has inherited his position based on his relationship to the founding family of that village. As a political leader, he often serves as an arbitrator and is equally recognized as a ritual specialist. This enables him to justify his position of power based on his relationship with the ancestors of the village. Each village consists of bark houses arranged in a pattern along a straight street, and the size of the village is often determined by the resources available.

Religion: The traditional religion of Fang centered around ancestors who are believed to wield power in the afterlife as they did as living leaders of the community. The skulls and long bones of these men were believed to retain power and to have control over the well-being of the family. Usually the relics were kept hidden away from the uninitiated and women. Wooden sculptures, known as reliquary guardian figures, were attached to the boxes containing the bones. Some believe that the figures are an abstract portrait of the deceased individual, while others argue that they serve to protect the spirit of the deceased from evil. It must be remembered, however, that it was the bones themselves that were sacred, not the wooden figures, thus there is no apparent contradiction in individuals selling what in effect was the tombstone of their ancestors for considerable profit to art dealers. During migrations the relics were brought along, but the reliquaries were often left behind.

Credits:  Christopher D. Roy also see credit page
Professor of the History of Art
The University of Iowa
 

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