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Arts of Africa

At the MFAH, art from the diverse continent of Africa spans ancient to contemporary times and includes the world's most significant collection of gold objects: the Glassell Collection of African Gold.

Reliquary Head
Before 1930
Wood and feathers

13 1/4 x 4 3/4 x 2 3/4 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum purchase

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, & the Americas

Arts of Africa

This sculpted head is a masterwork of African art. The Fang peoples believed that the head was the center of intelligence and consciousness, and the artist embodied this belief in his sculpture.

The Fang created reliquaries to preserve the bones of the deceased and provide links between past and present generations. The bones were placed in bark containers or bound in fiber packets. In times of need, these reliquaries were considered powerful forces for good. Wooden sculptures were carved to adorn and guard the human remains.

This reliquary was purchased in 1935 by American abstract painter John P. Anderson, who cherished it until his death in 1999. Its elegant features and intense stare, accentuated by brass disc inserts, one now lost, create a strong and hypnotic presence. The large, rounded forehead contrasts with the length and flatness of the hair and neck in sculptural balance. The base was made by Inagaki, a Japanese woodworker who lived in Paris and was known for his elegant wooden supports carved during the early 20th century for collectors of African art.