Fang people, Gabon, Ngil Society Mask

Fang people, Gabon

Ngil Society Mask, 19th – early 20th century 

carved wood with burned decoration and metal insets 

Purchase, 1976 (4381.1) 

Masks of this elongated type were worn by members of the powerful Ngil male secret society, the members of which acted as police and judges, imposing social order, revealing sorcerers, and handing down sentences to those who did not obey laws. Ngil members were also known as peacekeepers, settling conflicts between clans and rival villages. The museum’s mask incorporates stylistic features typical of Fang figurative carving—a broad forehead, heart-shaped face, long nose, slit-shaped eyes, and projecting mouth. Many Fang mask faces are covered with kaolin (pale clay), although the pigment may now be lacking here (or this mask may never have had kaolin applied to it). A costume of raffia ruffs and vertical strips would have concealed the body of the wearer. The masks, performed at night, were a dramatic and fearsome sight illuminated by flickering fire or torchlight. The Ngil society disappeared with the beginning of the colonization of Gabon in the early 20th century.