Head of man with long neck on pedestal
Gabon, region of Mimongo
Wood, copper, brass
H: 35 cm, W: 13 cm, D: 11.5 cm (H: 13.7 in, W: 5.1 in, D: 4.5 in)
Fowler Museum at UCLA. The Jerome L. Joss Collection. X87.1489
This head probably served as guardian for a packet of magical objects and substances, which would have been enclosed by a square of cloth–Tsogho raffia or European cotton–or, more traditionally, the spathe of a palm-inflorescence. The sides of the envelope were brought up around the contents and fastened to the neck of the guardian; the head’s pedestal stabilized it at the center of a packet. The objects would have included relics of remarkable persons (both family members and others), as well as symbolic items such as mollusk shells, stones, leaves, and bangles. Barwood powder and kaolin, the most common substances kept in the packet, were thought to absorb the magical power of the objects. The identities and contexts of these packet-assemblages remains controversial. The most authoritative source says that some are used in the rites of traditional Tsogho bwete, the paramount men’s cult of a village. In the connection, when the guardian is female, it represents “the mother, the origin of all things.” When it is male, it merely represents an “ancestor.” The same assemblage could be used in the rites of the cult of ancestors (presumably regarded as separate from bwete). Other assemblages were placed in a secret chamber in the bwete cult house. The senior initiates presented them with offereings and prayers so that their candidates for initiation would be granted visions of the unseen world. The Joss guardian head is the most graphic rendering of the hairstyle of the male Tsogho that is known. Paul Du Chaillu, who was among the Tsogho (“Ishogo”) June 20-22, 1865, noted the distinctive hairstyle: “The men…have fancy ways of trimming their hair. The most fashionable style is to shave the whole of the head except a circular patch on the crown, and to form this into three finely plaited divisions, each terminating in a point and hanging down. At the end of each of these they fix a large bead or piece of iron or brass wire, so that the effect is very singular” (Du Chaillu 1867:288). In the same book he included an engraving depicting the hairstyle (Du Chaillu 1867:opp.289): the “divisions” are flat and in the form of a long triangle. The coiffures of the Tsogo women that he describes were quite different. While the association of the Joss head with the coiffure does not assure us of its origin as early as the 1860s, the rarity of the depiction of this hairstyle in the Tsogho corpus strongly suggests that it went out of fashion some time after Du Chaillu’s visit and that most of the representations of it in sculpture disappeared before the transportation of Tsogho sculpture to Europe began.. Other guardian heads may refer to this kind of coiffure, but their carvers apparently preferred to bring the lateral “divisions” toward the read, thereby sparing themselves the effort of cutting away a larger amount of wood and forestalling the later risk of breakage. In the same account of Tsogho personal adornment, Du Cahillu reported that women wore no ornaments in their ears (Du Chaillu 1867:287). This observation was probably also valid for men, but it is a variance with the decoration of his head. Perhaps, however, the depiction of protective spirits allowed a margin for flattery by enhancement that transcended prevailing standards of fashion. It is also possible that the earrings were added later.
Source: Ross, Doran H. ed. (1994): “Visions of Africa”, Los Angeles, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. page 102