Purchase, Louis V. Bell and Harris Brisbane Dick Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1973
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 352
The Bongo peoples of the southwestern Sudan erect large wooden sculptures around the graves of important members of the community. These tall, polelike monuments take a simplified human form: a male figure that stands with flexed knees and, generally, arms held close to the body. The gentle modeling of the body and the sensitive treatment of the face and head make up for what these sculptures may lack in detail, giving the piece a simple yet natural aesthetic. The eyes of this figure were originally accented with beads that have since been lost, leaving hollow cavities. Its arms are also missing, but holes indicate that the right arm was at one time reattached.
This work was carved from a single tree trunk of mahogany, an exceptionally dense and heavy wood. Mahogany's great durability protects such sculptures from the wear and tear of the elements as well as from degradation by termites. The modeled surface of this sculpture has been abraded and smoothed by the heavy rains of the Sudanic grasslands.
It was common practice among the Bongo to honor high-ranking hunters and warriors by erecting these carved wooden effigies on their grave. It is not clear to what extent the effigies were supposed to resemble the deceased, but in at least a few cases, the sculptures do capture personal adornments such as bracelets and scarification patterns. During his lifetime, a Bongo man could gain honor and prestige through successfully hunting large animals or achieving victory in combat. In fact, some Bongo effigies are even notched to indicate the number of successful kills achieved by the deceased. The post was raised by the deceased's relatives usually a year or so after his death in a ceremony accompanied by a large feast. In addition to the central male figure, the grave site may also be decorated with sculptural representations of the deceased's wives, children, and even victims. The wooden monuments and feast confirm the title and rank attained by the deceased during his lifetime, and ensure that he maintains that place of distinction in the afterlife. The higher the deceased's status, the more lavish the celebration. During the festivities, relatives and guests recite his accomplishments and genealogy, so that Loma, the Bongo's Creator God, may evaluate him.
Only recently have sculptures such as this emerged from this remote region to be appreciated and studied by Western scholars. The Bongo population suffered greatly during the nineteenth century due to incursions by foreigners seeking control of the ever-profitable ivory trade and the depredations of slavery. Recent estimates number the population around 5,000, dispersed throughout a number of centers. As a result of the near-constant strife that has plagued this region, and the wide distribution of the Bongo themselves, there is a paucity of scholarship on Bongo material culture that is only now beginning to be addressed.
Christian Duponcheel, Brussels, Belgium, until 1972; [Alan Brandt, New York, until 1973]