Exchange

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Southern Cameroon, Rio Muni (Equatorial Guinea), northern Gabon; Fang peoples

Ngontang (mask)

Wood

H. 70 cm (25")

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.338

European traders, explorers, colonials, and missionaries were assimilated not only into the iconographic programs of African art forms, but even into the spiritual frameworks that underlie the production of much art, demonstrating remarkable accommodation of ideas. Fang and related peoples of Gabon, for example, have a tradition of white-faced masks called ngontang, meaning “young white girl,” which are worn in dances to honor the return of deceased female spirits but may also allude to colonialism and trade. The spirit of the young white girl is said to come from the land of the dead beyond the seas, whence Europeans also hail. A widespread belief prevailed in the early 20th century that the deceased were incarnated as Europeans and that French colonizers were the deceased returning to visit their Gabonese kin. Such fusions of belief and practice testify to an African receptivity to change.