Manifestations of power

A towering Tsesah crest from the Grassfields region of Cameroon (Bamileke peoples, 18th century) acquired in 2017 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Adel Gorgy
Royal masks from Cameroon, stunning and evocative, at The Met

It’s all quite subjective, but some things just emanate a presence. Then again, maybe it’s not. The artists who carved the towering royal Tsesah crests from Cameroon now on display at The Met Fifth Avenue sought to depict power and authority. They did it through size, style and psychology, and the sculptors who created them were carefully selected for their mastery. Turning a corner into the exhibition gives a sense of how successful they were. They’re jaw-droppers, the kind of pieces that force you to stop and look.

Just as Renaissance bishops, cardinals and popes established and enhanced their rank through patronage of and commissions for artists like Leonardo and Michelangelo, the rulers of the Bamileke peoples of Cameroon expressed their importance through art. Royal Tsesah crests were reserved for the king of kings, the sovereign fon, the seat of consolidated of power for some 100 chiefdoms that spread across the Grassfields region of Cameroon. Tsesah crests were their crowning glory.

The faces are massive, standing roughly 3 feet tall. They’re stunning, using abstracted, exaggerated forms. They’re evocative, suggesting distance in time and way of life. They’re imposing and impressive, despite being rough from age and repeated use, or perhaps because of that.

Although very few Tsesah crests survive (only 15 are known) they have been recognized by artists, curators and critics for decades for their strikingly original, creative figuration. One was displayed in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935, selected for its aesthetic quality, rather than its royal heritage. A photograph showing the installation of the crest in MoMA’s galleries is included in the show. Imagine the impact it would have had on young modernists.

Recently, The Met acquired what may be the very first Tsesah crest, carved more than 200 years ago. “The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon” is the inaugural appearance of that piece. It’s joined by three others, the largest grouping so far in an American museum. Also included is an expansive, powerhouse of a geometrically patterned textile known as ndop, which provided the backdrop for moveable, outdoor courts and ceremonies.

While each is unique, the form of the mask is prescribed. The face of the Tsesah features an exaggerated concave brow, stretching seemingly to the sky. It tops pointed oval eyes, cheeks that come out horizontally toward us, flaring nostrils open to the viewer (offering, perhaps, a suggestion of royal breath) and impossibly broad lips, often hinting at a smiling visage. The major portion, the brow, is arched, and in three of the works on view, incised with decorative patterns — chevrons, checkerboards and lines — that may represent stylized images of indigenous animals like crocodiles, also emblematic of power.

The crests would be held by attendants above the head of the ruler during dances to celebrate his sovereignty, or during royal ceremonies like funerals, enthronements and the delivery of judicial sentences. They were visible proclamations of the power invested in the head they crowned.

Tsesah crests were first collected by Westerners in the early 20th century, the curators, Yaëlle Biro and Alisa LaGamma, point out. By that time, they were no longer being worn. “According to oral history, the last time Tsesah was danced in Bandjoun was on the occasion of the funeral of fon Fotso II in 1925,” the wall text states.

One of the descendants of the master carvers provided some understanding of the masks, their usage and cultural importance. In the 1970s, Paul Tahbou, a carver from Bandjoun where the crests originated, supplied the names of some of the previous artists, including his father. The art form was transmitted from generation to generation, as were the works of art, themselves. According to Tahbou, they traced back centuries. Tsesah crests were the Bamileke ruler’s primary insignia of power. As authority passed from one ruler to another, so did the mask. When it became too worn, it was retired and a new one was commissioned. Only one could exist at a time. It was the visual embodiment of the monarchical idea, “The king is dead, long live the king.”