The Kwele (or Bekwyel) are an ethnic group residing around 100 miles north of the equator along the borderlands of Gabon, Republic of the Congo, and Cameroon. This was a region famed for its harsh climate and had traditionally been notoriously difficult to access. The first ethnographic fieldwork carried out here did not take place until the early 1960s.
This is a major reason why, while Kwele art is widely recognised, almost nothing was known about the lives of the artists before 1960.
The remarkable Kwele masks were often found in the huts of local elders and dignitaries. They commonly fall into three categories. Bush spirit masks, ekuk, act as guardians and often depict the faces of flying squirrels or owls. Gon masks resemble male gorillas. Helmet ngontangang masks contain multiple faces.
The gon is a special mask used during beete celebrations. Beete is a regular festival that takes place during times of high social and religious tensions in the Kwele society or after a serious event such as the death of an elder or dignitary. Nobles and clan chiefs are primarily concerned with keeping the peace, and the beete festivities are seen as the best way to do this.
The beete rites traditionally start with a hunting expedition, undertaken to bring the men of the village together in harmony. In the following celebrations, Kwele perform solo and group dances wearing the masks surrounded by ancestral skulls, borrowed from neighbouring groups if the Kwele had insufficient numbers. Beete rituals also involve magic substances consisting of meat, antelope intestines, and rare plants used to make a ritual stew.
During the rites, the arrival of gon is announced to the village. A day later, a participant arrives wearing the mask, shaped like the skull of an adult male gorilla. All gon masks are designed to instil fear and garner respect.
For that reason, the gon mask can only be worn by a villager believed to be brave, ferocious, mystical and mad. The wearer’s body is covered in charcoal powder and bound around the chest. During the course of the ritual, the gon breaks free from these bindings and stalks the village looking for prey. After the ceremony, beete masks are returned to the dignitaries’ chambers.