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: African Ceremonial Mask Acquired by Gift


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The African mask illustrated in this issue of the Bulletin represents one of the highest achievements, in carved wood, of indigenous Negro art. Acquired by gift, it is the first example of African art to enter the Institute's permanent collection. It comes from the heart of the Belgian Congo, and its carving and decoration indicate that it was produced by the Bakuba Tribe, a people who enjoyed a stable racial pattern and a relatively prosperous economy from the sixteenth century until their subjugation by the Belgians in the nineteenth century. The mask was executed some hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, and it reflects in its bold scale and frightening intensity of expression the hand of a master sculptor.It is well known that modern European artists such as Picasso and Brancusi made revolutionary use of the simplified plastic forms found in African sculpture during the early years of the present century. In fact this generation of European artists and their partons were perhaps the first to appreciate the aesthetic quality of African sculpture as well as to see in it possibilities for the invigoration of the European tradition. Both the artists and their friends began to collect African sculpture with the result that a number of private collections came into being. Perhaps the finest of these collections was formed by Charles Ratton in Paris, whose distinguished group of African sculptures rivalled the great ethnological collections in the British Museum and Brussels or the German cities. Since Ratton, not only a distinguished connoisseur but also a friend of many painters, owned the Institute's mask for many years, it is even possible that Picasso may have seen it before he painted his Cubist masterpiece, The Young Ladies of Avignon.To appreciate fully the impact of African sculpture on modern art, we must remember that it was absolutely unknown to artists working before the twentieth century. Picasso and his contemporaries did not “discover” it before 1904 or 1905. According to Gertrude Stein, it was Matisse who first introduced Picasso to African sculpture. Almost simultaneously such painters as Kirchner in Dresden and Kokoschka in Vienna “discovered” it in their local museums. While the painters called Les Fauves and the group which formed Die Brücke studied African sculpture for its violent expression of emotion, Picasso studied the more formal elements of the art such as the simplification of forms in Bakota funerary figures (several of which will be shown in the Institute's forthcoming exhibition, African Sculptures) and in the Bakuba masks of which the Institute's new work is a classic example.If it is due to Picasso and his contemporaries that we are now familiar with the plastic idiom of African sculpture, it is to the serious writers on the subject that we are indebted for our understanding of African sculpture against its proper background. André Malraux in his recent book, The Voices of Silence, discusses the subject brilliantly, evaluating it as an indigenous art with “an undying life of its own.” James Johnson Sweeney in his fascinating introduction to African Folk Tales and Sculpture, and another recent and more specialized book published by the Bollingen Foundation, maintains a careful balance between Picasso's enthusiasm for the purely sculptural quality of African carving and the ethnographer's knowledge of African civilization as a whole.Speaking of the formal elements of African sculpture, Sweeney points out that its vitality of forms, its simplification without impoverishment, its consistent organization in regard to architectonic sequence, and its uncompromising truth to material constitute its chief appeal to us. He writes:
“This is the basic language through which African Negro art must always speak to outsiders and possibly through which the great African art of yesterday must speak even to African Negroes of today. But a view of African art in this light should not exclude the importance of as full a knowledge as possible of the framework in which and for which sculpture of all ages and peoples must first speak to us—our own, as well as the Sumerian, the Mayan, or the Egyptian. Without some knowledge of the human setting in which and for which it was made it remains only the bare bones of expression, much as the music of the Paradiso would remain to one with no knowledge of thirteenth-century philosophy, history, or religion.“The non-African can only hope to respond directly through his visual experience—his personal non-African eye. But the more he can bring to the basic sculptural expression the richer will be his response and enjoyment. That will the gift of the ethnographer; the widening of horizons, the broadening of our embrace, the opening of new fields of aesthetic experience to explore into which, alone, we might never find our way.”
African sculpture reflects the Negro's environment and religion. The combined circumstances of subjugation to the leaders of a tribe of a kingdom and the importance of a man's position within that tribe or kingdom usually leads to ancestor worship. Thus a leader is often considered the terrestrial representative of a powerful ancestor. Such ancestor worship is particularly prevalent in the densely forested area of Africa in the upper reaches of the Congo where the Bakuba tribe flourished.Enjoying peace in a land abundant in materials for carving, and practicing a religion with a demand for fetishes and masks, the Bakubas developed the art of wood carving to a high point of excellence surpassed by no other tribe. Much of their sculpture was produced by master sculptors who were graduates of a lengthy apprenticeship in a very rigid tradition. Their greatest works include statues of the Bakuba kings and great masks representing tribal dignitaries or royal personages.In the case of the Institute's acquisition, both the scale of the mask and the decoration suggest a royal personage of great power. One of the largest examples known, the Institute's mask measures 19 1/2 inches in height, and 15 1/2 inches in width across the front and 17 inches in width from front to back. The total circumference of the mask is 47 inches. It has been carved from a single extraordinarily light-weight wood. Although there are a few minor cracks, undoubtedly caused by the dry heat of the western hemisphere, the mask has never suffered major damage or been repaired. The single piece of wood was hollowed out so skillfully that an average person wearing it can carry its weight without discomfort. The facial portion of the mask has been treated in one large concave plane with the exception of the convex nose. The counter-balance of the concave and convex surfaces accentuates the naturalistic basis of the conception. The sculptor has enriched the mask with carefully carved detail in the beard, hair and headdress. The patterns in each portion are balanced in such a way that the overall effect is a work of art with a fascinating variety of related rhythms.Even among the capable Bakubas a ritual mask carved from a single piece of wood such proportion is exceedingly rare. Most Bakuba masks are of the frontal type. The Institute's example, carved in the round and conceived with a strong architectonic sense, must be considered a work of exceptional quality within its field. Bakuba masks vary between a wide range of realistic and non-realistic quality found in the Institute's example is its scale, which, with its decoration, creates an impression of darkness and fear of the unknown. Decoration of these masks also varies tremendously. Some are found with human hair, nails, studs, and a great deal of paint. Others, like the Institute's mask, are handled with greater restraint and, to us, seem more effective. For example, very few colors have been added to the Institute's head. The wood itself has been stained and rubbed until it has acquired a black patina. The eyes and mouth have been highlighted with white circles, the beard, hair and headdress have received light touches of white and brown and red color. However, it is the white around the eyes and mouth which must have made this mask stand out when used in night jungle ceremonies. Although countless fetishes and masks must have been created for a single ceremony and then discarded, our mask was probably intended for repeated use. It must have been handed down from chieftain to chieftain or priest to priest within the tribe, and probably housed in the tribal sanctuary between ceremonies.When in use, the mask concealed the identity of the chieftain or priest. A brown shredded raffia costume was probably attached to the lower rim of the mask and covered the figure of the wearer. The scale of this particular work would indicate that it probably appeared above the eye level of the spectator when it was worn in a ceremony. It is known that often great numbers of masks appeared in contrasting light and shadow on the occasion of special tribal ceremonies. Certainly this mask must have stood out as a representative of a spirit to be appeased.Without some knowledge of the underlying concepts or customs of the Bakubas, or in fact the African Negro in general, there can be no true understanding of African sculpture. Although such a work can be appreciated for its esthetic qualities alone, it should be judged in the light of its culture to be understood in its full stature as a work of art. In carving it the sculptor was not attempting to transfer his material into a physical likeness of a chieftain or royal personage whom he probably never saw but to create shapes which were the result of his own experience within a civilization conditioned by ancestor worship and persistent fears. His “distortions” became orderly and meaningful against this background.The Institute is fortunate in having received, thanks to a very generous gift, an example of African sculpture of such unusual quality. The mask is a work which will appeal to those who are especially interested in the aspects of African sculpture which Picasso appreciated as well as those who wish to investigate the field in the context of its own environment. Works of such importance have become exceedingly scarce. There are only two other Bakuba masks similar to the Institutes' in well-known museums. The more famous of the two belongs to the Congo Museum at Tervueren near Brussels. It seems to be closely related to the Institute's acquisition. The other belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art. It is not likely that the exploration will produce many more examples equal in quality to these three. The very climate of their place of origin stands against preservation. Furthermore, the demand for such works on the part of collectors has far exceeded the supply. Forgeries, first produced in Africa and then in Europe, have appeared in amazing quantity, but these are easily detected as imitations of better examples. Today the various African governments have taken steps not only to identify and preserve their indigenous works of art but also to prohibit their export. Furthermore, many African governments have been purchasing such works on the New York and Paris markets for return to Africa. Although archeological exploration conducted by these governments may produce more in the way of bronze or stone sculpture, it is not likely to excavate wood sculpture which has survived burial or moisture. Thus future visitors to the Institute will be singularly fortunate in having this example before them, both as a stepping stone to explorations into what is a field of the greatest importance in the evolution of primitive cultures, as well as a work of art of arresting beauty in itself.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Detail of a giant African ceremonial mask from the Belgian Congo in painted wood, recently given to the Institute.
  2. Bakuba ceremonial mask representing a royal personage. Painted wood with hollowed interior. Early nineteenth-century Belgian Congo. 19 1/2 inches high.
  3. Profile view of Bakuba mask showing simplification of main facial planes into convex and concave surfaces. Width: 17 inches; circumference: 47 inches.
  4. Back view of Bakuba ceremonial mask. Vigorous carving in terrace and striated patterns contrast with the smooth lateral contours of the face.
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Source: Richard S. Davis, "African Ceremonial Mask Acquired by Gift," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 43, no. 3 (March, 1954): 18-23.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009