This Janus-faced ngontang helmet mask covers the full head of its wearer and is carved from a single block of wood. As a sculptural object, the mask is roughly accordion-shaped, with a ridged central section connecting a pair of relatively flat faces. At either side of the noses on each face, round openings embellished with radial incisions may, at first glance, look like eyes. More likely these are decorative "tattoos" adorning the cheeks, while slits flanking the bridge of the nose (functional eyeholes for the mask wearer) represent the eyes. The mask’s round and kaolin-lightened faces—with narrow noses, chiseled lines and eyebrows, and diminutive, frowning mouths—make it characteristic of its genre. Darker wood surfaces between the two faces are marked with shallowly engraved lozenge patterns and holes that once allowed feathers or other decorations to be affixed. Holes at the curved base of the mask once accommodated attachments for a raffia ruff or full-length costume.
In 1917, the Paris-based poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire and the art dealer Paul Guillaume published this Janus-faced mask, then in Guillaume’s collection. Unusually for an early-20th-century catalog, Apollinaire and Guillaume’s caption offers relatively precise coordinates for the object’s origin, noting that it came from the banks of the Abanga River, among the Essissone "tribe" of the Pahouin "race" (colonial-era French writers referred to the Fang as "Pahouins"). Aside from the obvious obsolescence and inaccuracies of terms such as "tribe" and "race," Apollinaire and Guillaume’s attribution is more informative than might be expected. Likely given by a supplier in Gabon who acquired the mask in situ, the caption points to a Fang-Betsi group northwest of the town of Ndjolé, between the present-day Estuaire and Moyen-Ogooué provinces of northwestern Gabon.
From the second half of the 19th century through at least the first half of the 20th, masquerades called ngontang took root and evolved in Fang communities across present-day northern Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and southern Cameroon. The etymology of ngontang (or nlo-ñgontang) appears to be a contraction of the Fang nlo ñgon ntañga: head (nlo) of the young girl or daughter (ngon/ñgon) of the European (ntañga; also ntanghe/ntangha/ntaña). Based on this name as well as on formal attributes, the genre is thought to have emerged in response to the European and American traders, missionaries, and colonial personnel whose growing numbers in Gabon and surrounding areas destabilized local social orders during the mid to late 19th century.
During and leading up to this early colonial period, Fang and other Equatorial and Central African peoples are widely reported to have drawn connections between—or indeed, conflated—Westerners and supernatural beings. The unusual physical appearance, novel technologies, and violently disruptive presence of Europeans and Americans in the region no doubt contributed to this pattern of belief, as did local associations of bodies of water (e.g., people arriving from across the ocean), and of the color white, with spirits and the land of the dead. The delicate features and light complexions of ngontang mask faces thus suggest both feminine and otherworldly qualities. Among approximately forty ngontang masks documented in major collections, some are single-faced, while others, in helmet styles, feature as many as five faces. Multiple faces may have served to indicate heightened powers of perception in the spirit realm and, when integrated into a costume ensemble, to impress audiences.
The 1917 caption published by Apollinaire and Guillaume also includes information about the mask’s public appearance, noting that it was danced "on nights of the full moon." Perhaps this reflects Fang associations of femininity with cycles of the moon: lunar motifs often adorn the faces of ngontang masks. In this example, moon forms can be seen in the circular openings with radial lines flanking each nose, as well as in the round contours of each face. However, neither the feminine identity nor the performance aesthetics of ngontang can be confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt. For, even though ngontang masks were widely collected as early as the late 19th century and a number early-20th-century accounts of other Fang masquerades are known, there exist only two published field reports mentioning ngontang.The first report derives from ethnographic research conducted in the 1940s in what is now Equatorial Guinea. Perhaps surprisingly given the mask’s etymology, this report’s two documented masks (now held in the Museo Etnológic in Barcelona) seem unequivocally to embody men with facial hair. The same is true for a handful of other well-known masks associated with the genre, including a famous mask acquired by the French Fauve painter Maurice de Vlaminck in late 1905 or early 1906 (and soon thereafter sold to André Derain, now in the Centre Pompidou in Paris). Ngontang, in other words, seems to have variously incarnated not only female but also male white spirit entities.
The second report, based on ethnographic research conducted in Gabon’s northern Woleu-Ntem province, features a 1960 photograph of a ngontang masquerade that shows a four-faced, pointy-nosed ngontang with raffia ruff and skirt, dancing in the presence of five dancers and two musicians. The report notes that ngontang appeared at marriages, wakes, and other celebrations. It also includes a transcription of song lyrics accompanying the masquerade. These lyrics, although somewhat obscure, mention sickness and suffering as well as a character known as "the White." The field report concludes that ngontang embodies a European whose narrow nose shows off the sculptor’s talents, and whose rare presence in Fang villages can draw crowds.
Joshua I. Cohen, 2016
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