Kwele, D.R. Congo

LSK 1121-2 

Kwele Mask, Congo

Among masks from the border areas between Congo and Cameroon, the Kwele mask from northeastern Congo (known locally as Bekwyel or Bekwil) reaps high prestige among these anthropo-zoomorphic masks.

This Kwele mask has two large horns that encircle and frame a heart-shaped face, on which is engraved a smaller mask on each side. The masks are all colored with white kaolin clays and black charcoal oiled color. Kwele ‘ekuk’ masks are beautifully stylized with the heart-shaped face, almond-shaped eyes and a small or non-existent mouth.

The combination of symbols – on the one hand evokes a protective ancestor (a very stylized, sunken, “heart-shaped” face, bleached with kaolin, with large almond-shaped eyes drawn towards the temples, giving it a look that is both enigmatic and serious) and on the other hand the echo spirit in the forest (an antelope or gorilla) – amplified the power of the mask.

The long-curved horns that rise from the top of the forehead form a ridge that has probably taken inspiration from the horns of the Bongo antelope (Boocercus euryceros, commonly called the “equine antelope”), the top animal in the large equatorial forest, and once abundant in this region full of game – and therefore a powerful echo. This very characteristic form is found in many other well-known works: the mask with “frame horns” kept in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (inv no. 1979.206.8.), a similar structured mask at the Museo Pigorini in Rome (published by E. Bassani in Scultura Africana nei Musei Italiani, 1977 59 no. 259.); and the one housed in the quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, formerly at the Musée de l’Homme (inv. no. 36.18.15).

The amplitude and elongation of the horns on this mask are often reproduced in the works of various artists. This power sprang as much from a direct visual effect (because the mask, as beautiful as it looks to us, should arouse fear, not only in the profane villagers, but also in wizards and other disciples of occult practices) as in its divine clairvoyance – the color white is the symbol of the gift of divination from the mythical unit returned from the realm of the dead.

Age: Est. early 20th century (before 1940).

Measure: H: 32, W: 38, D: 7 cm.

Provenance: Acquired from the heirs of an Italian engineer lived and worked in the Congo in beg. of the 20th century.

Literature: ‘Die Kunst des schwarzen Afrika’ by Kerchache, Paudrat, Stephan, fig. 578; ‘The Tribal Arts of Africa’ by Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, p. 120, fig. 4; similar mask types of the Kwele: ‘African Art in American Collections’ by Robbins & Nooter, fig. 896, 898, 899; ‘Ancestral Art of Gabon’ by Louis Perrois, fig. 18; ‘Afrika’ by Michel Leiris and Jacqueline Delange, cover photograph and fig. 379.

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