100 x Congo

A Century of Congolese Art in Antwerp

November 20, 2020 By: Adenike Cosgrove

In the late 1800s, Africa was divided up and ‘claimed’ by European nations at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. The conference was pivotal as it legitimised the looting, trading, and colonisation of Africa’s lands, natural resources, art, people, and minds. The period of colonisation—through claims of commerce, Christianity, and civilisation—eliminated autonomy, traditions and existing forms of African governance.

Belgium, for its part, came up trumps at the Conference. Convincing the world that he had humanitarian intentions, Belgian king Leopold II was officially acknowledged as the head of what he named the Congo Free State. A vast area of Central Africa—what is today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo—became his own private property.

Now here’s where things take an even darker turn. Under the guise of introducing civilisation to the African colony, king Leopold II exploited the colony and its people for his own personal gain. Commerce, however, was his main objective—commerce at all costs. Anxious to maximise profits from the ivory, rubber and minerals found in abundance in the region, Congolese people were forced to “work under the threat of having their hands and feet—or those of their children—cut off. Women were raped, men were executed and villages were burned in pursuit of profit for the king”.1

In his book, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’, Adam Hochschild estimates that as many as ten million people may have been killed during king Leopold’s rule over the Congo Free State. So brutal was his rule that in 1908 the Belgian Parliament took over and the renamed Belgian Congo became a colony of the Belgian State until 1960.2

As a port city, Antwerp was naturally connected to the trade of ivory and rubber during Leopold’s rule. But what is less known is that the city was instrumental in using ethnographic museums as a vehicle to extol the virtues of Empire, to demonstrate the “work of civilisation among the primitive Congolese population”.3

In 1885 Antwerp held its first ‘world fair’ where twelve Congolese individuals where shipped over from the then colony to the city of Antwerp, forced to re-enact daily life in their new fictitious ‘village’. A second World Exhibition occurred in 1894, this time with 144 Congolese children, women and men, each of whom was exhibited and ridiculed in ‘human zoos’. 3,500,000 people visited the fairs.

Many Congolese became seriously ill on their way to Antwerp and at least eight people died after arrival into Antwerp. For the first time, the names of those that died in Antwerp have been revealed.

A new exhibition, curated by Els De Palmenaer (Keeper of the Africa collection of the MAS) in collaboration with Nadia Nsayi (MAS curator representation), aims to shine a light on the city’s connection with the Democratic Republic of the Congo—it highlights the tragic stories of the individuals that were shipped to the port city for the World Exhibitions and the role Antwerp played in perpetuating horrors against the Congolese people.

Diversity, inclusion, and decolonisation run the risk of becoming buzzwords to some but not at the Museum aan de Stroom. ‘100 x Congo’ at the MAS also showcases 100 examples of Congolese art ‘acquired’ by missionaries, ministers, scientists, and merchants at the height of the colonial period to question how masterpieces of Congo art came to find their place in the collection of the city’s museum. Were these pieces plundered or bartered? Were they purchased or gifted? Who were the original owners of the pieces and how did they get to Antwerp? Often the trail starts and ends with the Belgian provenance.

Collaborating with Congolese researchers, an investigation into the provenance of each object in the exhibition was conducted and is ongoing. The museum states that “The African collection of the MAS numbers around 15,000 objects [with] over 5,000 objects originating from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighbouring countries: the Republic of the Congo and Angola. Collaborating with Congolese researchers, also in the context of restitution, is a necessary step in filling gaps in our knowledge… in order to resolve the many unanswered questions.”

The exhibition goes beyond the visible. It challenges visitors to look beyond the aesthetic appeal of the art on display to consider the ‘how’ and the ‘what’—to consider the stories behind the works on display, to imagine the lives touched by the objects before they arrived into Antwerp.

Below we highlight a selection of the 100 works of classic Congolese art on display at the exhibition, along with the museum’s descriptions (taken from the MAS Visitors Guide “100xCongo. A Century of Congolese Art in Antwerp”, Publisher: BAI for MAS, 2020) of the region, its peoples and the provenance identified for each piece. From masterpieces of royal art to the initiation masks and figures, we shine a light on the wealth and diversity of art from the Democratic Republic of Congo to ask “how did it get here?”.

"The MAS does not consider the question of restitution as a mere legal matter, but also as an ethical question. The museum is aware of the imbalance of power during acquisition of the objects in the colonial period (1885-1960)…

The Congolese collection is property of the city of Antwerp. The final decision on restitution or return of objects is in the hands of the City Council of the Mayor and Aldermen." — Museum aan de Stroom

From the 16th century, the Kongo peoples had to deal with the slave trade, increasing European intrusion and internal power struggles. Colonisation set in from the late 19th century. France, Portugal and Belgium divided the kingdom of Kongo, and separated the population. Nowadays various Kongo peoples live in the region of Congo estuary: in Gabon, Angola with the enclave Cabinda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of the Congo. Socially and culturally they are connected to one another. They also share the historical awareness of their old kingdom. Also, the phenomenon of chieftaincy remains important.

To the Kongo, minkisi are personalised powers from the invisible land of the dead. Those who call upon the minkisi expect support in their adversity, whether an unsolved crime (a theft, for instance), an illness or a death attributed to hidden powers or witchcraft. In general, they are divided into two types on the basis of their function: aggressive minkisi hunt and punish wrongdoers; benign minkisi promote the common good and the fertility of women and crops.

Just like a nkisi statue, a Kongo chief was charged with supernatural powers during his inauguration. As a spiritual leader, he himself was a nkisi, a living amulet. His destiny was the destiny of everyone and everything. His authority was sustained by his ancestors. His power was so enormous that people had to be protected against it. Aided by ritual specialists (diviners, sorcerers…) he was an intermediary between the worlds of the living and the dead. He was both feared and respected.

A nkisi power statue was activated by a nganga or ritual specialist using magical substances. Imported European commodities such as dyed textiles and tacks intensified its power. Mirrors—’solidified water’—held a special meaning for the Kongo. These separated the world of the living from that of the spirits, warded off danger and offered protection. The eyes of a nkisi statue were often inlaid with mirror glass, just like the small boxes containing magic ingredients, which were fixed to the stomach. The nganga used the mirror box to detect evil.

The Tio kingdom, with the Teke and Mfinu, was also separated—the Teke lived under the colonial rule of France and Belgium. Nowadays most Teke live along the shores of Malebo-pool and the Congo river in the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A few groups live in Gabon.

Some marks of distinction of Teke rulers are displayed on the ceremonial weapons and ritual statues. Their chiefs and other dignitaries could be recognised by their hairstyle with a bun on the back of the head. Their beard was a sign of dignity and wisdom. Chiefs bore parallel lines of scarification (mabina) on their foreheads and cheeks. For the Teke and related peoples, this was the ideal of beauty. It also indicated their social status.

The Teke used power statues in divination, as protection against evil spirits or to amass wealth and power. During rituals, the statues were charged with power by adding magical substances. Such cult objects were also containers of spirits. Ancestral spirits dwelt in nkira statues and anonymous spirits in buti figures. The function of the statuettes is not revealed by their appearance. Names of Teke statues refer to the ancestor’s occupation in life: such as ‘ancestor chief’, ’ancestor hunter’ or ’ancestor blacksmith’.

This Mbuun cup probably once contained ritual kaolin (mpio). It was passed along during the investiture of a chief. The gesture legitimated his ownership of land and symbolised the presence of his ancestors. According to oral traditions, the figure’s gesture—bent knees, arms outstretched forward, hands facing up—was the provocative gesture of a challenger who, with bent knees, was offering earth to his opponent. The latter would adopt the same posture and boldly strike the earth from the hands.

Mbuun cups shaped like a female figure bearing an object (caryatid) are extremely rare. This cup was purchased from art dealer and collector Henri Pareyn (1869-1928) in 1920 when the Antwerp Museum Vleeshuis bought 1,600 pieces. Following lengthy negotiations, Pareyn succeeded in striking a deal: the city of Antwerp paid him 43.000 Belgian francs, a considerable amount at that time. Frans Claes and Louis Franck mediated with the municipal administration. The money was paid in instalments over a period of four years.

Henri Pareyn was the son of a West Flemish family of boatmen and lived in Antwerp from 1896 after his marriage to Césarina Deraedt. This early collector became a key figure in the Belgian trade in Congolese art. Although he never personally travelled to Africa, he riffled through the quays of the river Scheldt and the ‘Congo-boats’ moored there every month. He bought objects off returning colonials.

Pareyn never ran a gallery, strictly speaking. Yet he supplied a wide network of buyers, Belgium and beyond. After his death, his widow put up the remainder of his vast collection for public auction, in the luxurious halls of the Antwerp Grand Hotel Weber. The auction was directed by Frans Claes and attracted countless national and international buyers: private collectors, dealers and representatives of European ethnographic museums. For five days buyers could place their bids. With some 2,000 lots this remains one of the largest auctions of Congolese art ever.

The proceeds of the Pareyn auction came close to nearly two million Belgian francs. The Antwerp press stated that the sale was ‘une vente sensationnelle’ (a sensational sale), yet it was bitter—only nineteen objects were bought for the Museum Vleeshuis. The lion’s share went to Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), an Englishman with American roots. Thousands of pieces of the former Pareyn collection relocated to England and the United States. To this day, Pareyn objects are traded on the art market.

Dancers wearing wooden Pende masks (mbuya), with raffia collar and headdress, performed during various festivities, such as the ending of the mukanda, the initiation rituals for boys. The mbuya masks represent dozens of characters. Each has a proper choreography and rhythm. Typical characters are the Chief, the Bewitched, the subversive Clown and the Warrior or Law enforcer. The masks are personifications of ancestral spirits and used as mediators between the dead and the living.

Ikhokho pendants are worn by both the keepers of mbuya masks and by initiated boys. They also play a role in the handing over of power of a chief. Whoever was gifted a ghikhoko by an ancestor also received his vital force. The amber-coloured patina of the ivory pendants is caused by wear, the washing with fine sand, and skin contact.


Luluwa wooden statues can usually be identified by the complex scarification patterns on the face and body. Scarification was a means of enhancing human beauty. For the Luluwa physical beauty reflected moral qualities. It also increased the ritual effectiveness of their sculptures. Luluwa women used sculptures to protect themselves and their babies during pregnancy. They were also used during fertility rites (bwanga bwa cibola). These small carvings were attached to clothing or kept beside the bed and they were regularly rubbed with palm oil.

For centuries the Chokwe dominated an area that stretched from central Angola to the southern regions of Congo and Zambia. During the 18th and 19th centuries, their territory lay on an important trade route between the Atlantic coast and the African interior. Their rulers negotiated in the barter trade between the Europeans and neighbouring peoples. The Chokwe never really had a central government. Their territory numbered various political centres. The head of each centre was a mwananganga or ‘master of the land’. These high-ranking individuals descended from the Lunda conquerors who had settled in Angola around the 15th century.

The refined art objects and utensils for which the Chokwe are renowned were made for this elite by professional artists. The chihongo dance mask on the comb symbolises wealth, prosperity and male power. European brass tacks give the object a refined and precious look. They were imported from the 18th century onward.

Whistles were worn as amulet pendants during initiation rituals of boys as well as during hunting. The leader used them to communicate across long distances with other hunters. These examples have holes for modulation in order to change key. Thus it was possible to communicate by means of a complex ‘whistling language’.

The initiation school (n’khanda) for Yaka boys was a key moment in the transition from childhood to adulthood. During a period of isolation, adult men conveyed their knowledge to the boys involved. The boys learned skills, gained insight into mythology, and received sexual education. The rite of passage also included circumcision. This rite was like a re-birth—the boys died metaphorically and were reborn as men. The learning period ended with masked ceremonies during which the initiates were reintegrated into society. The masks embodied ancestors. Once the dance was finished, their power was depleted and the masks were destroyed or sold.

At the end of the 19th century, the Kuba kingdom in the forests and the savannas of the Kasai in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was about as large as Belgium. It numbered 150,000 inhabitants. The kingdom was founded in the 17th century and had developed into a confederation of ethnic groups, governed centrally by the king or nyim. The nyim ruled from his palace in the capital Mushenge. Provincial chiefs and vassals represented his authority elsewhere. The king bound his subordinates to him by bestowing upon them countless titles of power. All Kuba strived to obtain such a title. Rank and wealth were displayed in beautifully decorated art objects, valuable weapons, clothing apparel and braided headdresses.

Kuba masks are representations of mingesh (singular ngesh), natural spirits who mediated between Nyeem—the supreme being—and humans. They provided fertility, healing and success at hunting. Bwoom, the oldest royal mask type, dates back to the 18th century. The open nostrils were used to look through. The hairstyle with triangular areas at the sides used to be fashionable. It bears witness to an ancient tradition.

Ngaady a mwaash is one of the three royal masks of the Bushoong, the ruling group of the Kuba. It represents Mweel, the sister and wife of Woot. They were the mythical royal couple from whom the Bushoong dynasty descended. It performed as a mime with other royal masks, and at funerals. The tears symbolise Mweel’s grief caused by the separation from her brother and the prohibition of incest.

There are only three known examples of wrought-iron Kuba artworks, including this pair. According to Kuba tradition, the statuettes were made by Myeel, a 17th-century prince and a skilled blacksmith. The link between forging and kingship existed elsewhere in Central Africa as well. Forging and melting require the use of the four elements and were therefore considered to involve magic.

Songye power statues (mankishi, singular nkishi) served in dealing with personal and communal problems, such as sickness, death, failed harvests, unsuccessful hunts, or as protection against evil spirits. As a rule, small statues provided individual protection. Everyone could make them and they are found in many different styles. Large statues were commissioned from well-known artists. They often served the village for many generations.

The nkisi statue of chief Nkolomonyi embodies the power of a mighty Songye chief and mediated with the invisible world of spirits. It also guarded its community against dangers, among them the conflict with Belgian colonisers. It is unclear how the statue came into the possession of Paul Osterrieth (1872-1932), in December 1923 in Lusambo. Osterrieth was the offspring of a German family of traders, who owned rubber and coffee plantations in Lomami. A note in the MAS archives confirms that the statue “belonged to fetishist and chief Nkolomonyi, who was sentenced to death” [by the Belgian colonial administration].

Recent research in collaboration with Congolese partners confirms that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the statue belonged to Nkolomonyi. But who was he? This Songye warlord, chief and ritual expert (nganga) rebelled fiercely against the occupation by Belgian colonisers. Following his arrest, he was either executed on the spot or transported to prison in Lusambo, for the execution of his death sentence. Subsequently, the statue was stolen from the village by Belgians.

The Hemba are renowned for their statues of leaders. These sculptures (singiti) were among the objects a man inherited upon becoming a chief.

This statue commemorates a historical leader of the Hemba/Niembo clan. It was used in the ancestor cult. That confirmed the shared origins and cohesion of the clan. Moreover, it endorsed the power of leaders. This ancestor figure dons a ‘chinstrap’ beard and a cruciform braided hairstyle: these are signs of a higher rank. His closed eyes look into another world from where he watches over his offspring. He holds his hands about his lightly swollen abdomen with a protruding navel. The gesture refers to the proverb: ‘humankind begins at the navel’. It accentuates the relation between the ancestors and the living.

The central Luba kingdom was founded in the 17th century. Kings derived their power from Mbidi Kiluwe, a mythical hunter-ruler who introduced kingship. Luba rulers demonstrated their authority through artfully designed objects. They inherited them from their predecessors. Some were displayed in public, such as the chief’s ceremonial staffs and weapons. Others, like chairs and bow rests, were hidden and guarded in a secret place. This to prevent theft as well as to protect people against their power.

The Lega had no centralised supreme authority. Power was divided among representatives of various clans and lineages. Socially and politically, the Bwami association underpinned society. This organisation was accessible to both men and women. In order to be initiated, one had to serve as a moral example first. Because of the secrecy of the initiations, some representatives of the Belgian colonial administration distrusted such associations. They saw them as an organised form of resistance.

Wooden and ivory Lega masks (lukwakongo) are emblems of Bwami members. They were not always intended to hide the face as is the case with most Congolese masks. Lega masks were held in front of the face, arranged on the ground or attached to a stake or the body.

Ivory pieces (iginga) were the secret possessions of the highest ranking members of the Bwami association. The ivory pieces represented characters with good or bad qualities. Their meaning was revealed during initiation by the teachers. They were only ever seen by initiates and were never intended for public display. Until today their precise meaning remains unclear to all uninitiated.

Mbole society was directed by the Lilwa association. It had ritual, social, political and judicial functions. Statues with heart-shaped faces and dangling limbs represent persons condemned to death and hanged. They had disturbed public order or broken the laws of the Lilwa association. The meaning of these ofika or ‘statues of the hanged’ was explained to boys during rites of passage. As a deterrent, the statues were also carried around on a stretcher made of vines. They had to keep members of the association on the straight and narrow.

100x Congo: A Century of Congolese Art in Antwerp runs at the Museum aan de Stroom until March 28, 2021. A full exhibition catalogue can be purchased HERE.

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