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VI:4/ Spring 2001

by Louis Perrois

A Kwele mask, seen by chance in an exhibition of African art, is readily identifiable. Looking at the subtly refined forms, the mild concave shapes, and especially the graceful heart-shaped face, one might be tempted to assume it to be a classic form of African sculpture, as iconic as Dogon or Fang works. Strangely, this is not so, although art enthusiasts and specialists have admired these works for decades.

These masks, with their slit eyes that elegantly curve to the temples, were first collected by Europeans early in the twentieth century. Western interest in them lay in their seemingly simple yet expressive facial features, restructured by the sculptors' imagination. These quiet faces spoke to the desire among the avant-garde for a new aesthetic code. In the 1920s, Tristan Tzara bought one such mask, in which interlocking curves combined to make a face of sublime purity, a face whitened with kaolin and surrounded by a black collar. This piece is now in the Barbier-Mueller collection in Geneva.

The great Swiss collector Josef Müller found a similar mask in Paris around 1939. It had been collected before 1930 by a colonial official, Aristide Courtois, in the Ngoko-Sangha region north of the French Middle Congo (Perrois, 1985, #19).

According to Jean-Louis Paudrat, a connoisseur of the early years of African art collecting (Rubin, Primitivism in 20th Century Art, 1984), Kwele items were virtually unknown-or at least unrecognized-before 1900, although there was growing interest in the masks and sculpture of the nearby Mpongwe, Kota, and Fang of Gabon. The first publication to make a specific reference to the art of the Kwele was Henri Clouzot and André Level's work, Sculptures africaines et océaniennes, colonies françaises et Congo belge (Librairie de France, Paris, 1925). The first major exhibition to display Kwele works was held in 1930 at the Pigalle Gallery in Paris.

The earliest Europeans to notice the masks were a handful of colonial administrators, missionaries, and traders of rubber, ivory, or wood, either on post or prospecting in the Ngoko-Sangha subdivision, which included Ouesso, Sembé, Souanké. This is an extremely remote region, as far from Brazzaville as it is from Libreville. Whitened with kaolin and blackened by heat, the masks were usually seen housed in the back of huts belonging to local dignitaries. The best-known collector of these works was the above-mentioned civil servant, Aristide Courtois, who transported a large number of artifacts to Europe between 1930 and 1935. Most of these he sold to Charles Ratton and other Paris art dealers.

Paris' Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro (later the Musée de l'Homme) acquired a number of Kwele objects in 1930 and 1931. The Muséum Lafaille (now the Musée d'Histoire naturelle de La Rochelle) was given its famous mask with the "W"-shaped horns (fig. 16, right) in 1935 by Alexandre Petit-Renaud, an agent for the Compagnie Tréchot du Haut et Bas-Congo (see Féau, L'art africain dans les collections publiques de Poitou-Charentes, 1985). La Rochelle also has an outstanding Kwele bellows decorated with a stylized human figure, which was donated by Dr. Stephen Chauvet before 1940. It is believed to have been brought to Europe by Savorgnan de Brazza in 1880.

Although Kwele art is easily recognizable and particularly associated with these well-known pieces, before the 1960s virtually nothing was known about the life and customs of the creators of these remarkable masks. The region where they live lies just 100 miles north of the equator and straddles the contemporary borders of Gabon, Congo, and Cameroon. It is an area that is difficult to access and has a debilitating climate, and the first ethnographic field work there was not embarked upon until 1960-61, when Leon Siroto, an American researcher from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, spent several months among the Kwele collecting data for a thesis. Siroto focused his research at Ouesso and Sembé in the Congo and at Mékambo in western Gabon. The resulting thesis, Masks and Social Organization among BaKwele People of Western Equatorial Africa, was presented in 1970. Despite the fact that it was eagerly awaited by many specialists, it has remained unpublished, although the text is available on microfiche. Fortunately, Siroto has subsequently published much of his research on Kwele culture in several essays in exhibition catalogues and in-depth articles (see bibliography).

Between 1965 and 1975, I had occasion to carry out research among the western Kwele in the Mékambo-Madjingo region (Djaddié valley) as part of a project I was doing in Gabon for ORSTOM and the Musée des Arts et Traditions in Libreville. In the course of my field work I encountered a few masks, including a helmet mask, called mwesa, with four faces surmounted by intersecting sagittal crests like those seen on gorilla skulls, which the Imbong villagers used in anti-witchcraft rites.

Despite the information that has been collected, the traditions, history, and culture of the Kwele in the Dja basin are still not as well known as those of many of the other peoples of Equatorial Africa.

Next >> The Kwele: Witchcraft and Magic as Instruments of Power

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