Condition Report

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Early 20th c.; Carved wood, hide, metal; 58" x 32" x 32"; Provenance: Allan Stone Collection, New York;

Estimate: $15,000 - $25,000


According to Bettina von Lintig, DPhil, in 2018: A photograph taken in 1908 by German ethnologist Bernard Ankerman shows an Mbansie society orchestra performing in Fumban, the capital of the Bamum Sultanate in the Cameroonian Grasslands. The Mbansie society members were high-ranking notables of the palace court. A drum quite similar to the one opposite is seen being played on the right in this photograph (Photo: Kamerun: Kunst der Könige, page 28). This wooden drum with a hide head on the photograph has "legs" which are representations of figures. The photograph only shows one of these support figures, which is holding its hand to its chin in a gesture which is locally considered to express awe and fear of a high-ranking ruler. The latter's subjects had to address him with their hand in this position so that their breath would not reach him. This stylized gesture is observed in many palace art works from the Sultanate. Attribution/ Description/ Interpretation The hollow wooden drum under consideration here has a thick hide head very similar to that of the drum on the historical photo. Its "legs" also depict figures, of females as well as of a male court notable holding his hand to his chin in the aforementioned gesture of respect. The designs and symbols that appear on the sides of the drum shell in low relief also argue convincingly for attributing it to Bamum. Drums played an important role in the social and religious lives of the Grasslands groups. Kings, notables and secret societies all used them to play the rhythmic accompaniments for dance performances not only in Fumban but among the Bamileke and in Cameroon's Northwest Region. Missionary Paul Gebauer observed them in use and wrote: "Drums abound. The giant, slit, talking drums, male and female voiced, transmit the basic patterns of the forest languages. Equally large signal drums placed horizontally or upright, direct the songs and motions of the dancers. Hollow log drums with their skin covered heads are operated vertically, smaller ones are held between the knees. They are tuned." (Gebauer 1979, Art of Cameroon, page 66). The shell of this drum is covered with fine carving in low relief which is divided into several fields. Spider designs alternating with six "mound" designs (which may represent the entrances to these spiders' burrows) are seen arranged in a band along the lower edge of the shell above the support figures. The spider oracle which these designs may allude to was used as a divination tool for finding the truth and was reserved for use by the king in Bamum. Various symbols are depicted on the drum shell's wide central band: a coiled two-headed python (mfüet), the best known royal insignia of Bamum, a double-gong, widely used as a symbol by many Grasslands associations, and another spider motif. A buffalo head rendered in low relief is also present beside the two-headed python, and it represents a royal household (Cf. Geary, Kamerun: Kunst der Könige, page 39). Another area of the shell's surface depicts a dance performance with drummers and dancers. The scene is such that one is inclined to think it may have been created using a drawing as a model. The same is true of the tree and the member of the court next to it that are seen on yet another part of the surface. This individual is wearing a turban and a loincloth and holding a double-gong. What may also be the handle of a nyi prestige sword is also seen at his side, along with an element that could represent the sheath for it. All of these things were considered insignia of rank in Bamum. These various emblems which appear elsewhere on the drum - the two-headed snake, the buffalo head, a spider, and the face of a court member and a double-gong - are repeated on the band around the shell that is immediately beneath the head. The latter is attached to the drum shell with pegs and decorated with little brass emblems. One of them depicts a frog. The frog or toad design is a sign of royal descent, and of fertility and progeny as well (Cf. Geary, Op. cit., page 54). The drum is thus loaded with symbols which are associated with initiates and whose esoteric meanings are fully understood only by them. Age/ Significance The history of the Sultanate of Bamum and its court art are closely related. The use of certain symbols and techniques developed in the 19th century under the rulers of the time. Artistic influences from Tikar and from other parts of the Cameroonian Grasslands were incorporated into the local style. Bamum bordered on the Islamic world and much-used trade routes connected it indirectly with the areas around Douala and Calabar on the Atlantic coast. The iconography and images seen in Bamum art are similar to those of other Grasslands peoples, but the motifs and designs used do have special meanings that are specifically associated with the Bamum hierarchy and worldview. Figural representations remind us of various aspects of royal leadership and that the ruler's sovereignty is founded on the loyalty of his subjects. The elaborate flat-relief technique carvings on the drums are reminiscent of painted or drawn pictures that became widespread in Bamum as a result of Islamic and then also European influences. The rulers of Bamum often looked favorably on innovation and encounters with new ways often became the starting points for processes of appropriation. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, the visual arts became increasingly important for the upper class Bamum both in terms of how they saw themselves and their history, and in terms of their connections with the outside world (see Geary, Op. cit., page 25). A wide variety of both traditional and modern sculpture, historical painting styles, performances, and presentations of objects and people became hallmarks of Bamum identity. The drum we are examining here displays all the characteristics of early 20th century Bamum art. Paper, pencils and ink all came to Bamum with the Germans, and they opened new possibilities for two-dimensional expression through painting and drawing (Geary, Op. cit., page 62). My feeling is that the relief work we see on the drum shell reflects strong influences from external styles of painting and drawing combined with local Grasslands iconography. In my opinion, the drum's very classical and culturally characteristic attributes and the fine and detailed rendering it displays of palace symbols make it a valuable and fascinating testament to the art of a society in transformation.