Eyema Bieri (Reliquary Guardian Figure)


By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


As a migratory people, the Fang have the custom of gathering the bones & skulls of deceased chiefs and important community members (together with magical substances) into cylindrical bark containers, instead of burying them in graves. Crowning the containers are figural sculptures, made from wood, believed to embody the guardian spirits of family ancestors held within the containers; "the physical embodiment of their ancestor’s vital force". These ancestor shrines are known as nsek bieri (also called nsek byeri) and the guardian figures protecting the shrines are known as bieri (also called eyema bieri, eyema-o-bieri or nlo bieri).

It is believed that these shrines allow the living to communicate with ancestors in the spirit realm through offerings made to the nsek-bieri shrines. Bieri figures are consulted before important tasks are undertaken and these figures are also used during the initiation of young men into the bieri cult.

NOTE: The Fang are a migratory people and as such styles change over time as specific groups are influenced by the styles of new regions.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all bieri:

  • Made of wood
  • Figures represent ancestors as men (and women in some cases) in their prime combined with infantile features such as shortened limbs
  • Concave heart-shaped face
  • High bulging forehead
  • Deep eye sockets
  • Eyes can be cowrie shells or round metal discs
  • Sunken cheeks
  • Pouting mouth
  • Rigid, slender, projecting chin
  • Some male figures feature beard projection
  • Strong columnar neck
  • Head large in relation to body
  • Variety of hairstyles (waves of hair or caps which sweep outwards at the neck)
  • Distended belly with prominent navel
  • Bulbous arms and curvilinear legs (varying from very short to very long)
  • Arms resting upon long rounded body or on the thighs (or clasping a receptacle containing medicine)
  • Most full figures have a sticklike extension / plinth from buttocks (for insertion into bark cylinder on which bieri sits)
  • Some figures decorated with metallic bracelets, earrings & tacks

Regional variations (Mabea sub-group / Southern Fang group):

  • Made of wood (Funtumia Africana)
  • Light-coloured reddish-blond patina
  • Smooth surface
  • Height approximately 20 - 30 inches
  • Naturalistic figures
  • Large head
    • Less than 1/4 height of full figure
    • Double crested arc helmet on head
    • Forward projecting head
  • Almond shaped eyes
  • Open mouth
  • Sharp, pointed teeth visible
  • Thin lips
  • Projecting and detailed ears
  • Long neck
  • Broad, rounded shoulders
  • Oversized and elongated forearms
  • Outstretched fingers
  • Hands rest on thighs
    • Hands carved away from the body but attached with projections
  • Muscular chest in male figures
  • Youthful or flattened, elongated breasts in female figures
  • Narrow, slender and elongated torso
  • Slightly bent knees
  • Straight edge of the thighs and calves
  • Some carved with a posterior support depending on size

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