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African Art

Female Guardian Reliquary Figure (Byeri)

19th century

Wood, brass, palm oil, and fiber

15 3/8 × 4 3/4 × 4 3/4 in. (39 × 12 × 12 cm)
Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection
Byeri guardian figures were originally attached to a cylindrical bark receptacle containing up to ten skulls assembled by several generations of a family. Referred to as “child of medicine,” they received regular offerings. Many byeri display a bold gaze with an intensity suggesting vigilance, possibly meant to discourage women and children from approaching the sacred remains. Palm oil, lavishly applied to the surface, continues to saturate the wood of the figures that are on view here after more than a century. The palm oil preserved and protected the wood from insect damage and produced a luminous surface.
Fang Mvai
19th century

K. John Hewett, London, from 1961. J. J. Klejman, New York; Charles B. Benenson Collection, Greenwich, Conn., by 1981–2004; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.


Susan Vogel and Jerry L. Thompson, Closeup: Lessons in the Art of Seeing African Sculpture from an American Collection and the Horstmann Collection, exh. cat. (New York: Museum for African Art, 1990), 167, fig. 97.

Susan Vogel, African Sculpture: The Shape of Surprise, exh. cat. (Greenvale, N.Y.: C. W. Post Gallery, 1980), 33, no. 112, ill.

“Acquisitions, July 1, 2005–June 30, 2006,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2006): 222.

“Acquisitions, July 1, 2006–June 30, 2007,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2007): 4, ill.

Frederick John Lamp, “Charles Benenson and His Legacy of African Art to Yale,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2004): 33, ill.

Art for Yale: Collecting for a New Century, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2007), 183, pl. 165.

Frederick John Lamp, Amanda Maples, and Laura M. Smalligan, Accumulating Histories: African Art from the Charles B. Benenson Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2012), 50, 182, ill.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.