Utter the word ‘rediscovered’ in an auction catalogue and the classic art market works itself into a frenzy, excited to learn more about an artwork that remained ‘hidden’ for decades, never before exhibited, never before sold. Such is the case of a recently ‘rediscovered’ mask, used by the Fang Ngil society in 20th-century Gabon.
Back in 2018, Christie’s announced the record sale of a ngil mask that had been held in a private Belgian collection for almost half a century. The mask was described as “one of the last of this quality still in private hands.” Three years before that, in 2015, Sotheby’s proclaimed that the ngil mask from the Aga Khan collection was “among the oldest Fang ngil masks known, and is one of the last of the early examples to remain in private hands.” Guess what, yet another ngil mask has surfaced, held in private hands for decades.
In what dealer, Bernard Dulon describes as “a really important discovery for art history,” the mask, acquired in Gabon between 1917 and 1918 by the then governor of the French colonies, René-Victor Fournier, and transmitted by descent to its current owners, will be auctioned off at the March 26, 2022 ‘Prestige’ sale by Hôtel des Ventes Montpellier Languedoc.
To understand more about what makes this rediscovered mask special, we asked Bernard Dulon, who was responsible for authenticating the find, to share why this mask is worthy of a page in the art history books.
“Ngil is the name of a secret society that existed until the 1920s among the Fang people,” explains Dulon. It was a roving militia, primarily focused on finding and neutralising malevolent sorcerers. The group acted as the guarantor of social stability and security for its people, while the sorcerers they hunted were believed to be possessed by an evil parasite.
Villagers would call the Ngil whenever possession or witchcraft was suspected. This could be due to an unusual death or new disease, or because of power struggles and internal politics.
The secret Ngil society used large masks by the same name (also called ngi or ngyi; meaning “the face of the Ngil”), made from single pieces of wood featuring a stylised human face. The highest-ranking member and diviner, the ngengan, would always be accompanied by attendants who acted as assistants, musicians, dancers and bodyguards.
“The ngil mask was used to deliver justice through the spirits of ancestors,” Dulon shares. The purpose of the rite performed by the Ngil was to frighten anyone with evil intentions. Therefore, while considered beautiful by many in the West, the faces on the masks were designed to be grotesque and intimidating.
Accused parties would be forced to drink a poison called minkal as a form of test. Those deemed guilty would be judged and sentenced on the spot. Punishments often included beating, confiscation of personal property, cursing and in some severe cases, death.
After high-profile disturbances caused by the Ngil, and upset by the direct competition with their own courts, the Ngil society was gradually banned by the colonial powers in Gabon and Cameroon between 1910 and 1920. While masks are no longer considered “active”, they continue to be made for collectors and tourists.
“Between ten and twelve ngil masks are identified among museums and private collections all over the world.” — Bernard Dulon
Describing the morphology of these masks, Dulon explains that “ngil masks are impressive white masks, covered with kaolin, often elongated and with a rounded forehead that ends with this famous, heart-shaped superciliary arches.”
Where these masks were once meant to instil fear among 20th-century Fang peoples, ngil masks are now considered beautiful for their “good proportions, elegance and refinement.” Their geometric simplicity and exaggerated elongation have inspired Western artists the world over and that same “elegance” is what many of today’s collectors of classic African art seek for their collections. Add rarity to the mix and the crowd goes wild.
And so, to the ngil mask collected by René Fournier. According to research by art historian Bertrand Goy:
After a twelve-year career in Madagascar, René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier (1873-1931) was posted to the Directorate of Indigenous Affairs in Dakar in August 1908.
He became director of the cabinet of the General Government of French West Africa (AOF), then governor of 2nd class on September 26, 1916. At the end of his stay, he befriended [ethnologist and Africanist] Maurice Delafosse — who settled in Dakar at the end of 1915 — who would undoubtedly introduce him to the charms of African art.
On May 20, 1917, he was appointed lieutenant-governor of the Middle Congo, from which he resigned on May 16, 1919. As a member of the Close Guard of the Governor of the French Equatorial Africa (AEF) Angoulvant, he was certainly called upon to carry out some missions in Gabon.
Bernard Dulon notes that “this mask, whose traces of abandonment (xylophagi) are visible, was no longer used for worship and was certainly acquired by Governor Fournier who, trained by Maurice Delafosse in African aesthetics, had to understand the importance of the work. Governor René Fournier brought it back with him when he returned to France and the mask remained in the family house,” hidden in the attic, forgotten for decades.
“We were able to verify the entire history of this mask. In addition, scientific analyses were carried out by the CIRAM laboratory and concluded at an age of the mask and its adornments in the 2nd half of the 19th century,” continues Dulon about the provenance, age, and authenticity of the mask.
The rarity of ngil masks makes the mask in the Fournier collection “a really important discovery for art history,” explains Dulon. “One ngil mask that compares directly with the mask of Governor René Fournier is that of the Denver art Museum… The purity of its lines and the arrangement of its volumes give [the Fournier mask] a rank of icon in the very limited corpus of the masks of the Ngil society.”
The mask presents many features admired in ngil masks — a rounded voluminous forehead that sweeps into an elongated, heart-shaped face and a long protruding nose that points to a diminutive mouth. Small, diamond-shaped eyes that express a reverential yet stern air, the raffia beard missing from many examples, its uncluttered shapes, and clean incisions of smooth lines set this mask apart.
The mask has an estimate of €300,000-400,000. The last ngil masks to sell at auction were the mask once owned by the dealer Pierre Vérité that sold for €5,750,000 in 2006, a Fang ngil in the Aga Khan collection that sold for $970,000 in 2015 at Sotheby’s, another collected by René Withofs, which fetched €2,407,500 in 2018 at Christie’s, and the Périnet mask that sold for in €2,540,000 in 2021.
“This is an extremely low estimate which is more than an indicator that the mask does not come from the art market and that it is for sale even at a very low price. We think it will do much more at auction,” Dulon concludes.
26 March 2022 update: The mask sold for €5.25 million including fees amid a protest for the mask’s return to Gabon.