Ah, the fall African art season. Not only does autumn bring changing colours and premiere’s of our favourite TV shows (yup, we’ve already finished binge-watching Mindhunter and Big Mouth), autumn also sees the start of an epic calendar of African art exhibitions, auctions, and sales. And a show that everyone’s been looking forward to is Les Forêts Natales at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris.
03 October saw the opening of the highly anticipated exhibition that features over three hundred ceremonial masks and ancestor reliquaries from the Fang, Kota, Tsogo, and Punu ethnic groups. The vast number of pieces provide viewers the perfect environment to study the similarities and unique differences between objects from a specific corpus.
Les Forêts Natales aims to demonstrate that the migrations between ethnic groups in what is today southern Cameroon, Republic of Equatorial Guinea, the Gabonese Republic, and west of the Republic of the Congo, led to the creation of some of the most incredible pieces of art made on the planet. By highlighting the diversity and similarities between artistic styles from distinct ethnic groups, the exhibition shows that nothing is static, everything is borrowed. Influences from neighbouring cultures led to experimentation in styles and shaped artistic creations.
Writing about the exhibition, Stéphane Martin, President of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac states that “with the new exhibition, Yves Le Fur, Director of the Museum’s Heritage and Collections Department, takes an opposing view to excessively deterministic approaches. He frees the works, showing what they owe to the dynamics of exchange, borrowing and experimentation, which inform all artists’ works.”
"Now it is true that the genius of African culture is surely its repetition, but the key to such repetition was that new elements were added each go-round. Every round goes higher and higher. Something fresh popped off the page or jumped from a rhythm that had been recycled through the imagination of a writer or a musician. Each new installation bore the imprint of our unquenchable thirst to say something of our own, in our own way, in our own voice as best we could. The trends of the times be damned."—Michael Eric Dyson, as featured in ‘I Stand Alone’ by Robert Glasper Experiment
The majority of the works displayed, works from the 17th century to the early 20th century, have been selected from the museum’s own collection. In addition, pieces from private collections and other public institutions are presented to display a full breadth of styles. The Musée Dapper, the Barbier-Mueller Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Munich’s Museum Fünf Kontinente all have pieces at the exhibition, pieces that will leave viewers with a full appreciation of the aesthetics, forms, history, and splendour of art from the region.
"The exhibition examines the notion of distinctive local identities in the creation of works of art."
Yves Le Fur
Focusing attention on two key types of objects—guardians of ancestor reliquaries and masks used in the rituals of initiatory secret societies—Les Forêts Natales takes viewers on a journey to discover the practices found among some of the region’s ethnic groups. All ethnic groups venerate ancestors through the making of reliquary figures and the majority of masks are used during festivals, ceremonies and initiations connected with spirits that intervene across a number of social issues.
Below, we feature some of the masterpieces that currently grace the exhibition floor and profile the ways in which they were once used in their cultural setting.
Ethnic Group: Djem
Object: (Reliquary Guardian Figure)
Dimensions: Height = 10.5 inches
Opening the the exhibition is this mysterious piece believed to be made by the Djem of Cameroon. ‘Believed’ because very little has been researched or documented about the use or origin of this figure. What is known is that the piece was donated to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (what is now the Musée de l’Homme) in 1901 by the plantation owner M. Ferrière.
This figure is believed to be a guardian reliquary figure because of her distinguishing features—with flexed legs, she appears to be sitting on an extension, similar to those found in Fang reliquaries. Her extension would have been set on a basket (nsuk) full of ancestor bones (ndebot). In addition to her mystery, she is also very special sculpturally. Her broad head juts out into a triangular face enhanced with mother-of-pearl eyes. Her short arms extend out into open-palmed, disc-like hands.
Ethnic Group: Fang
Object: Eyema Bieri (Reliquary Guardian Figure)
Materials: Wood, Palm Oil
Dimensions: Height = 18.9 inches
Like the Djem figure, this Fang eyema byeri figure from Gabon was used to guard a basket containing the remains of ancestors (the figure and the basket is known as bieri). It is also said to house the spirits of Fang ancestors. With its dark glossy patina (from oil applied to protect the wood) and rounded shapes, this figure is one example of the many reliquary figures forms from the region. Depicting the sum of all the ancestors contained within the basket, guardian reliquary figures are not just limited to the Fang or Djem, they are also found in various shapes and forms among the Bulu, Beti, Ngumba, Tsogo, Mbede, the Kota, and the Mahongwe.
The figure’s protruding stomach and navel, large head, and stunted limbs make her appear childlike. However her concentrated facial features display the gravity of her role as guardian. She holds a calabash, a feature common in figures from central western and southwestern Republic of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
Ethnic Group: Fang
Object: Nlo Byeri (Reliquary Guardian Head)
Dimensions: Height = 24.8 inches
Among the Fang, reliquary guardians include full figures, heads, and in some cases busts—they all serve the same function, they were fastened to bark boxes to guard family relics, protecting them from theft by means of their magical power. And just as there is variety in full figures, there is variety in Fang nlo byeri heads. Each region has its own style of coiffure and headdress. That being said, all nlo byeri heads have the same facial features: large heads, protruding foreheads, concave triangular faces, and coffee bean or round brass eyes.
Is there anywhere this head, ‘The Brummer Head’ from the Musee Dapper, hasn’t been? Once in the collections of Joseph Brummer, Carl Reininghaus, Jacob Epstein, and Carlo Monzino, this nlo byeri has been exhibited at the following shows: Skupyna Výtvarných Umělců, III, výstava (Prague, 1913) || The Epstein Collection of Tribal and Exotic Sculpture, Arts Council of Great Britain (London, 1960) || ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, Museum of Modern Art, Detroit Institute of Art, and Dallas Museum of Art (1985) || African Aesthetics: The Carlo Monzino Collection, Center for African Art (New York, 1986) || Masterpieces of Africa, Dapper Museum (Paris, 2015).
Country: Republic of the Congo
Ethnic Group: Mbede
Object: Mitsitsi-Na-Ngoye (Guardian Reliquary Figure)
Materials: Wood, Skin, Pigments, Glass
Dimensions: Height = 6.7 inches
Unlike the Fang, where ancestor bones were kept in bark boxes, the Mbede of Gabon and Republic of the Congo kept the bones of revered ancestors inside sculpted figures, figures called mitsitsi-na-ngoye. In this case, the head, neck, and shoulders form a ‘lid’ to the container made of the body of the figure. Other figures have a cavity carved into the torso, covered by a panel fastened by plant-fibre straps.
Country: Republic of the Congo
Ethnic Group: Kwele
Object: Beete Gon (Gorrilla Mask)
Dimensions: Height = 17.7 inches
The Kwele, a once forest dwelling people, have their beliefs rooted in forest spirits (ekuk)—spirits that influence the wellbeing of the community. To harness the protective power of ekuk and of ancestors, the Kwele developed the Beete association and initiation rite; all Kwele warriors were initiated as members of the society.
During times of crisis, conflict, or during hunts, the Beete society performed ceremonies in which masqueraders acted as intermediaries between the villagers and ekuk. Also known as ekuk, the zoomorphic masks danced during ceremonies are physical representations of spirits. Often painted white, these masks (including bata – the ram, zok – the elephant, and gon – the gorrilla) are said to be possessed by the psychic powers needed to fight evil.
Ethnic Group: Galwa
Object: Okukwe (Society Mask)
Materials: Wood, Pigments, Kaolin
Dimensions: Height = 11.8 inches
Formerly in the collection of Dr Stephen Chauvet (1885-1950), Paris
Masks of this kind were used as an identifier of members of the Okukwe society, a judicial association. These large, oval, and often polychrome masks were worn during celebrations that honoured ancestors and asked for their assistance in ensuring the protection of the community. Okukwe society members also worn these masks during births, funerals and initiations.
Ethnic Group: Punu
Object: Ikwara (Judge Mask)
Dimensions: Height = 18.1 inches
Can we say it, yeah we’ll say it… Punu masks are probably one of the most known and recognisable pieces of classic African art. Their oval faces with pointed chins, their crested plaited hairstyles, their half closed eyes with bulging eyelids and curved eyebrows, the scarification on their foreheads and temples, and their well-defined mouths stained red are all features instantly recognised in okuyi / mukudj Punu masks. They are almost a gateway drug to those that have never seen African art before—a blend between what’s recognised as European and what is distinctly African.
What’s less known however is the variety in Punu masks. Depending on the region, you’ll find masks and dances with different names (including ocuya, mukudj, ikwara, and okukwe as examples) and with different distinguishing features. In this case, the black mask from the region of Ngounié in South Gabon, is known as ikwara, ikwar, or ikwara-mokulu , meaning ‘mask of the night’. Extremely rare, and linked to the spirit world, it is used to solve disputes and ultimately ‘keep the peace’ within the community.
Danced only at night, ikwara masks are similar in shape and style to more popular white-faced mukudj but are painted entirely black or dark brown. A similar example was sold by Sotheby’s on 14 December 2011.
Les Forêts Natales at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac runs until 21 January 2018.