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Female royal figure

Photo: Paul Macapia

Female royal figure

19th century

Fon Yu

1865-1912

Just over one hundred years ago, this royal figure was closely guarded in a palace sanctuary high on a mountaintop in Cameroon. There she was shown only in rare public spectacles, when her gestures and appearance emphasized court etiquette for thousands of Kom people. Removed from this home in 1905, she became an ambassador for her kingdom and was transferred through collections in Europe and America. In the Seattle Art Museum, she is the most significant sculpture in an assembly that originally came from the Kom royal treasury. Today the current leader of the Kom, Fon (king) Yibain, continues to preside from a palace environment that is adapting to the twenty-first century. His approval to display art from his kingdom has led to exchanges and a recent update about the opening of new galleries for Kom art.
Wood, beads, string, leather, hair, metal, hide, incrustations, and polychrome
Overall: 69 in. (175.3cm)
Width: 17 in. (43.2cm)
Depth: 21 in. (53.3cm)
Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company
81.17.718
Photo: Paul Macapia
location
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

Henry VIII would have been envious.

Paul Gebauer, 1979, Art of Cameroon: Portland Art Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Lesson in Etiquette and Beauty

Kom eyes appreciate this woman's composure and physique. She is not young or alluring, but a middle-aged woman of calm stability. Her hands are ready to clap, as women of the palace do when they greet the king. She has traces of red powder, showing that she was properly rubbed and coated with camwood as an enhancement to her beauty and authority. This red hue is identified with good health and royalty. No sharp angles or features appear in her face, which has been coated with a copper overlay. Kom definitions of beauty rely less on how a face appears and more on body type. This figure fulfills an ideal of ample, broad shoulders and long limbs with a full stomach. A stool extends from her knees  to remind viewers that the female line of descent watches over the lineage of male kings. The Fon was expected to sit on a sequence of stools during his visits to different parts of the palace or when arbitrating disputes.
Babungo (Chief Zake's wife) with shaved coiffure rubbed with camwood, Bamenda area, Cameroon, ca. 1930-1960
Photo: Paul Gebauer
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Photograph Study Collection, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Bequest of Paul Gebauer, 1977 (PSC 1977.1.401.1248)

Hearing From a Grandson of the Palace

A letter was sent to Fon Vincent Yuh II explaining the wealth of Kom art maintained in the museum. When he was asked whether he would contribute to what Americans knew about the art, he responded that he would offer the research services of one of his palace attendants. He selected Gilbert Mbeng, who had assisted anthropologists who had undertaken fieldwork in Kom. Pictures of the collection were sent for Mr. Mbeng to use during interviews with elder princes of the palace, and in 2001 he brought the results of his research to Seattle.
Gilbert Mbeng showing photographs of the SAM collection to the Fon and his retainers at the palace at Laikom
Image courtesy Gilbert Mbeng

The Perspective from the Palace

How does the Fon and the palace of the Kom view the wealth of art accumulated in a place like Seattle? What is the museum doing that the palace would approve or disapprove of? Is there a curator of the Fon's collections who could answer questions about the art in the museum's holdings? Questions like this developed in 2000 and resulted in an exchange of information with Fon Vincent Yuh II, who suggested that the museum host a grandson of the palace. The grandson, Gilbert Mbeng, and members of his family are now joining together to assist the Fon in making sure that dedication to royal art forms continues in the twenty-first century.
Fon Vincent Yuh II (reign 1994-present) at the palace, Laikom, 1999
Photo: Evan Schneider

Setting the Stage for Royalty: Kom Art in SAM's Collection

Cloth, n.d., African, 81.17.776
"Ndop cloth is a special royal cloth. No ordinary person would be allowed to wear it. No machines were used to make it, as it was stitched with raffia thread in Foumban or Nigeria to resist the indigo blue dye. Kom people originally got this cloth from far off areas because they were involved with trade. If you look at this cloth, you will see marks of snakes and this is how a Kom person will be able to identify that this is a cloth from Kom."

--Gilbert Mbeng, 2001
Coronation Throne, n.d., Kom, 81.17.720
"I prefer to call this a 'royal throne' because we use a stool, not chair, to install our Fon. This snake is biting a bird and it relates to the myth of Kom people, who followed a python to establish the site where the palace was built. In addition, the Kom believe there is life after death. A bird is supposed to go into outer space and link up the people with their ancestors, while the snake moves under the ground and connects with the ancestors who live underground. The bird and snake connect us to these two worlds. So, it maintains a cosmology and the Fon performs the rituals that maintain this tradition. The throne is kept in different areas in the palace, but most properly in the women's living quarters. When the Fon visits this area, he sits on the throne for his business."

--Gilbert Mbeng, 2001
Retainer Figure, 20th century, Kom, 81.17.719
"In Kom we call this the chisendo, or 'retainer,' the custodian of Kom tradition. This retainer is holding a mortar in his left hand and in his right a calabash. He is sitting on a stool with the mark of a leopard. What he is meant to represent is an installment ceremony because it is he who installs the Fon of Kom along with other kingmakers. Normally, when you go to the palace, you carry gifts to the Fon and give them to the retainer. It is the retainer who goes to the inner shrine of the palace where the Fon lives and tells him there is a guest."

--Gilbert Mbeng, 2001
Feather headdress, n.d., Kom, 81.17.754
"This headdress is called ijwuah n'atnang. It is made out of feathers and is connected to the music from the palace. It is kept by every prince in Kom and when music sounds everyone will put it on as a special costume for a performance or ceremony. On the headdress are the red feathers of the teroquo (banamas toraquo), a bird found mainly in the Ajun (ijum) forest--it's a rare and endangered species. The feathers are dropped by this bird and once we collect them, we use these feathers to recognize achievements by different persons in Kom. So it is like giving a medal to someone who did something worthy."

--Gilbert Mbeng, 2001

Laikom in 1950s

Photo: Paul Gebauer
Laikom, Cameroon, 1950s
Laikom, the capital of the Kom, is a dramatic site perched atop a mountain slope, 6,300 feet in elevation on a long volcanic spur. This setting is known for mists, drenching rains and lightning storms. However, an American who was stationed in Cameroon, Paul Gebauer, said "Laikom was worth the stiff climb and the exposure to its bitter cold nights, for it was a jewel of architecture. Artistic rulers made it into a showcase of towering buildings and a maze of courtyards."
Photo: Gilbert Schneider
Quarter of the Fon’s wives, Laikom, 1953
Entering the palace was equated with walking into a human body--the main gate was the mouth, the central square was the stomach, and the Fon's quarters were the buttocks or foundation. Quarters for the Fon's wives were considered the limbs of the palace body.

Laikom in 1999

Aluminum roofs have replaced thatch ones, but the royal compounds are still perched high in the grassfields and overlook vast stretches of territory. Cars follow rough roads to climb to 6000 feet, and in this view park on the edge of a central performance arena.
Laikom, November 1999
Photo: Evan Schneider

Proper Palace Attire

Prestige hat, 20th century, Cameroonian, 81.17.755
Hat (Ntamp), n.d., Cameroon/Grasslands, 81.17.765
Men's garment, n.d., Cameroon, 81.17.769
Leopard Headdress, n.d., Cameroon, Bamileke, 81.17.700

Laikom in 1970s

Photo: Evan Schneider
Performance at Laikom to celebrate the return, 1974
In 1974, a historic episode in royal art history occurred when another memorial figure was returned to Laikom after being stolen from the palace and exhibited in the United States. The figure was called the afo-a-kom, and it took a series of articles in the New York Times to stir up a diplomatic mission to deliver it back to the palace. Evan Schneider, who was born in Cameroon and grew up amid the Kom kingdom, was able to photograph the many preparations for this figure's reception.
Photo: Evan Schneider
Preparations for the appearance of Kom royal art, Laikom, Cameroon, 1974
Special cloths, guardian retainers holding elephant tusks, a python skin and the Fon await the reunion of the figure with its companion pieces still remaining in the royal treasury.
Photo: Evan Schneider
Royal memorial figures with umbrellas, Laikom, Cameroon, 1974
A row of royal memorial figures are holding umbrellas to ward off the weather.

Resources

Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, "Lessons from the Institute of Empathy," (03/31/2018-ongoing), DT 450P

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke A Back, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Wadsworth Atheneum, Cincinnati Art Museum, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, February 7, 2002 - April 30, 2006

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum Volunteer Park, The Table and Chair: A Study in Form and Style, May 28 - August 9, 1987

Madison, Wisconsin, Artwork for the Month, Elvehjem Museum of Art, November 1 - November 30, 1986

Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art, African Sculpture, Kansas City, Missouri, Nelson Gallery of Art; Brooklyn, New York, Brooklyn Museum, 1970.

Cleveland, Ohio, the Cleveland Museum of Art, African Tribal Images: The Katherine White Reswick Collection, July 10-September 1, 1968; the University of Pennsylvania Museum, October 10-December 1, 1968.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, African Panoplies, April 21, 1988 - August 14, 1999

New York, New York, Guggenheim Museum, Africa: The Art of A Continent, June 5, 1996 - September 29, 1996
Published ReferencesLaGamma, Alisa, Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011, Fig. 130 , pg. 143

McClusky, Pamela, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke A Back, Seattle Art Museum, 2002, pg. 118

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Africa: The Art of a Continent, Curated by Tom Phillips, October 4, 1995 - September 29, 1996, pg.154.

Phillips, Tom, Africa: The Art of a Continent, in African Arts, Vol. 29, No. 3, Special Issue: africa95 (Summer 1996), pp. 24-35, illus. p. 35

Blier, Suzanne Preston, Review: The Art of Cameroon, in Art Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer 1984, p. 167, fig. 1

Nothern, Tamara. The Art of Cameroon. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1984; p. 98, reproduced fig. 21.

Thompson, Robert Farris, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act, 1974. pg. 55, plate 61.

Leuzinger, Elsy, Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika, Kunsthalle, Zurich, 1970. p. 4.

Fagg, William. African Sculpture: [Loan Exhibition] Circulated by the International Exhibitions Foundation, 1970. Washington, D.C.: International Exhibitions Foundation, 1970; p. 67, reproduced fig. 64.

Fagg, William. African Tribal Images: The Katherine White Reswick Collection. Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1968; reproduced fig. 179.

Leuzinger, Elsy. Africa: The Art of the Negro Peoples, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, Toronto, London. p. 145.

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

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