WHAT IS BIERI?
In the Fang tribe, wooden sculptures are made for the cult (a group of people who all believe deeply in the same thing, person, or ideal) worshipping ancestors, called the Bieri. These sculptures look like human people. The Fang tribe is from Gabon, which is on the coast of Africa next to The Republic of Congo and Cameroon.
WHAT DO BIERI SCULPTURES LOOK LIKE?
Bieri sculptures represent a figure from the neck to the top of the head. The sculpture often looks similar to someone who has died but not exactly the same. Often, there are large sloping foreheads and very narrow chins, for example. The neck is longer than a human’s. On top of the head and to either side of the face, it is common to see something that looks like a wig. It is not a wig but a headdress that Fang warriors wore in the 1800s, called ekuma.
HOW WERE BIERI SCULPTURES USED?
The bieri sculptures were a part of a bieri altar (a place where spiritual ceremonies or sacrifices are made), called a nsek-bieri. Every family would have a nsek-bieri that could be transported. While only certain family members could touch the skulls in the nsek-bieri, the sculpture of the person on top allowed everyone in the family to understand the importance of the bones inside.
WHAT WAS THE FUNCTION OF THE NSEK-BIERI?
It is believed that if the skulls are in a box, people are protected from accidentally coming in contact with powers which might be dangerous for them. Also, having the skulls in a box makes them easier to transport during periods of migration.
HOW ARE BIERI SCULPTURES MADE?
The sculpture is carved from wood and rubbed with palm oil to give it a dark black colour. The eyes are represented by two small, thin metal disks attached flat against the face.
WHY WERE BIERI SCULPTURES MADE?
The bieri sculpture is attached to a box, called nsek-bieri. The nsek-bieri is used to store skulls. The nsek-bieri holds 9 or more generations of family skulls. The deceased ancestors were believed to have powers contained in their bones.
The carved figures on top is meant to represent figures with protective powers. The figures are believed to protect the skulls in the box from outside evil spirits.
Image via www.metmuseum.org