The Nsungli peoples live in small villages along the northern edge of the Cameroon Grassfields, a region known for the dramatic sculptures that adorn the doors, windows and porches of palaces. Elaborate door frames marked the meetinghouses of Nsungli men's regulatory societies as a sign of their wealth, influence and prestige. The posts, with four figures to each side, would have stood well above the actual door opening. Made by local carvers and typically painted with bright pigments, these male and female figures signify the power and wealth associated with a large population and the ability to increase the kingdom's riches and reputation through warfare. The single heads may refer to an enemy killed in battle.
This door frame consists of two posts and a lintel. Each post displays four alternating male and female figures with rounded torsos and strong, short limbs. The figures' arms are raised and support the figure above. The legs, with heavy thighs, touch at the knees. The figures' triangular flat faces with round eyes and opened square mouths are shallowly carved. This execution of the face is found on the northern periphery of the Cameroon Grassfields, such as in the Fungom District and around Nkambe. In keeping with artists' aesthetic preferences in the Grassfields regions, the surfaces of the works show adze marks and have not been smoothened. As one would expect, there is some insect damage to the lower part of the posts, where they sat on the ground. There are also the cracks, which resulted from exposure to the elements. Some sections of the two posts, especially interior ones, show traces of soil--probably a result of storing them after the house, to which they were once attached, was torn down. Replacing old buildings made from raffia poles and thatched with grass roofs with mud brick ant zinc roof structures is common reason for removing and selling door frames. Traces of red camwood and white kaolin indicate that the posts were once painted.
The lintel is adorned with four heads. Their faces resemble those of the figures on the post, but are rounder and display more deeply carved features. A kaolin-highlighted linear motif, which might allude to scarification, adorns their foreheads. The lintel seems more weathered than the posts and also has more extensive camwood and kaolin pigmentation. This raises the intriguing question, whether it was initially part of the doorframe or whether the frame was assembled later--perhaps when houses the posts and the lintel once adorned were rebuilt.
Mbouombouco Esmaila, acquired Batfouan Village, Nkambe District, Cameroon, 1997
Davis Gallery, New Orleans, 1997 to 2002
African Mosaic: Selections from the Permanent Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 19, 2013-ongoing (deinstalled April 10, 2014)
African Mosaic: Celebrating a Decade of Collecting, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 19, 2010-November 13, 2013
How to Look at African Art. 2013. Gallery guide. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.