Helmet Mask (Ngontang)
Not on view
This anthropomorphic helmet mask is carved from a single block of wood and covers its wearer’s face and top of the head. The mask is symmetrical save for its slightly differently shaped eyeholes. To conceive of the mask’s full aesthetics, viewers may wish to imagine earrings in the now-empty holes of its pierced ears; a fresh coat of white kaolin pigment on its face; and an accompanying costume and performance with music and dance. The mask’s coiffure—similar to hairstyles observable on Fang subjects in photographs taken in French Congo circa 1900—must be seen as elaborate. Markings suggestive of cicatrization decorate the forehead, nose, upper lip, chin, and neck. Holes at the curved base of the mask once accommodated attachments for a raffia ruff or full-length costume. Since these various features are found, in different combinations, on dozens of similar yet oftentimes better-documented objects in other collections, this mask is linked to a Fang (Equatorial African) masquerade genre known as ngontang.
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.
A 1917 caption published in reference to another ngontang mask in the Met’s collection (1979.206.24) notes that the mask 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. 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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