Faces of Masks – Congo River: Arts of Central Africa

January 9, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Posted in itchy mouth | Leave a comment
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Africa has always been one of the places Itchyfingers would like to visit as I am captivated by its rich culture and arts. When Itchyfingers were on our way to take photos of the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon early last month, we passed by the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) and saw the huge banners on the building.

I have to see this! By the way, since when did they change the words on
the facade red?

So the following Sunday, Itchyfingers turned up at the door of ACM, eager to explore the world of Africa through its arts!

We went straight to the Special Exhibition Hall…

The continent of Africa is dominated by two immense rivers, the Nile and the Congo. Winding for 4,700 km through central Africa, the Congo River passes through many different landscapes, from lush forests along the Equator to broad grassy savannahs. It connected people as the river carried goods and trades, thus linking culture and arts.

The people of Central Africa share many beliefs and traditions. For centuries, communities have expressed their identities through beautifully crafted sculptures and masks. And indeed it was the pictures of these masks on the banners that attracted us to the exhibition…

One of the most common masks found all along the Congo River and the Ogooué River to the west come in the general shape of a heart made mainly of wood or ivory.

Concave masked covered with white pigment wearing a beaded ornament.
The forehead and cheeks frame a heart-shaped space that is usually painted
white, a colour associated with the land of the dead or the realm of ancestors.
The white pigment, called mpemba, is made from powdered kaolin, a white
clay collected from riverbanks. This is probably a panya ngombe mask, one
of a trio of masks belonging to a Pende chief, which is used only at the time
of circumcision during initiations

This mask is framed by a pair of long animal horns, probably antelope, an
important game animal of the Kwele people of northern Gabon. These masks
represent protective forest spirits or ekuk and were used during village
ceremonies to resolve problems like poor hunting or an epidermic.Very unique

Another very simple but expressvie mask. The tradition of body modification
are shown by the dotted scar patterns on the nose, brow and cheeks

The helmet mask is carved from a single block of wood! The large panels
on both side of the face represent wings, probably that of an owl, which
is associated with magic. Used during initiation rites associated with
circumcision and before festivals, the Kwele people believe that the owl’s
spirit could help villagers neutralise malevolent forces

Masked dances were not just entertainment, but also served to teach, unify a community, drive away evil spirits, cure sickness, or carry out justice. The wearer of a mask could be transformed into another being who was linked to supernatural spirits, such as ancestors, heroes, or nature. 

This bearded mask belong to a type called lukwakango which means ‘death
gathers in’ and refers to the importance of the connection between the past
and the present

The whitened, heart-shaped face characteristic of Lega masks are also found
on fully sculpted figures. Used during initiations, owners of guardians of
objects like this figure displayed and manipulated them in combination
with dance, music, drama and proverbs

If you think the green part are the legs then you are wrong! This is actually
a double-faced masked figure sitting on a stool! Hahaha…cute…
Originally part of a set of seven figural statues that were kept in a
shrine-house by an elder, they represent the members of a closely knit unit
that included the ancestors, her five sons and grandsons. This figure represents
the grandson, Alunga, who was so named because he was a famed dancer
with a mask that was used by the Alunga society

Be sure to try the interactive game to learn more about the masks!

Ancestor veneration is an important part of life for many people in Central Africa. Vested with mystical power and authority, ancestors could be called upon to look after their living descendants. Bones and skulls of prominent ancestors are preserved in various communities. Ancestor figures were also carved by some communities to emphasis family continuity, community bonds, and the claims of chiefs to power.

Male ancestor figures carved with scarification over the entire body holding
object which signifies his status in their communities. I think this one
holds gourds, which represent healers. I like this cos he looks kinda hip,
wearing ‘jeans’…hahah….

This one with knives represent hunters or warrior famous for their prowess…

This rare female ancestor figure wears a skirt and necklace shows full
breasts which emphasize maternity

This very interesting figure is called the muzidi – a cloth doll made of a
cane armature stuff with leaves. Read the label to learn more cos it’s too
long for Itchyfingers to describe here! :p

Beautiful head figure with faces on all sides…

A bird-shaped ceremonial knife…Looks like the cartoon crow character…
Only now then I know the birds are called Heckle and Jeckle…hahah

This female Nkisi figure is interesting..She gestures to her breast in a sign
of respect and to signify the guarding of royal secrets. However, she has been
carved so that the head and arms twist away from the front…So the ‘front’
showing here is actually the shoulder blades, or the back…

This should be the front view….This backwards turn may allude her ability
to view the other world

Oh my…does it look like a character straight from Japanese manga? So
cute! This half-bodied figure with an elongated head is a reliquary figure that
would have been placed on top of a hollowed-out tree trunk containing the
bones of ancestors

Tisu Boy was so intrigued by this male ancestor figure – thought he looked
comical as well as scary..hahah…Made by the Songye peoples, the horns,
mouth and navel are filled with medicinal contents, which gives the sculpture
its power. The copper mask is studded with nails. The bulging eyes and
mouth makes the sculpture look aggressive! But it is actually a benevolent
figure which protects against negative forces like disease, death or bad harvests!

I found this cute and Tisu Boy said it looks like Desmond Tutu, a South
African activist
…Haha.. The almond-shaped eyes symbolise the new moon
and its energy. The protruding tummy signifies fertility and the cycle of
ancestorhood..not sure what that means though…hahah

Try your hands at the stamping station to make your own self-portrait!

Tisu Boy with his masterpiece

Tisu Girl!

This Nail Power Figure is really scary and evil-looking to me! The body is
entirely covered with iron blades and nails. These status were known for
their formidable powers and commanded great respect. Its magical powers
were activated by a ritual specialist driving nails, blades, or other iron
objects into the figure…Oooo…sounds like black magic or witch craft hor?
Check out the picture on the information panel to see a real figure in use!
There is a another similar Nail Power Figure, equally scary!

This mask is decorated with colours widely found in central African cultures –
black signifies the living; white the ancestral realm; and red blood and danger.
Ooops…Itchyfingers had unintentionally broken the rule – photography
without flash is allowed in the gallery except the section on Pablo Picasso.
The painting in the background, Dimanche (Sunday) is an original work
from the master

Why is Picasso doing in an African exhibition? Well, beginning in the middle of the 19th century, colonial explorers and missionaries brought African objects back to Europe. Many artists were inspired by the visually powerful African sculptures, including Picasso. So this section showed some of the African-inspired work of Picasso, which photography is not allowed.

Wow the African already used buttons as eyes in those days!

The last section of the exhibition pay tribute to the role of women from the
savannah through these female figures…

Another interesting one – a kneeling mother with a child on her back used
in a funerary context. The white bodies resembles the ashen quality of the
dead while the black tears on the cheeks indicate their own weeping and
also those who mourn their deaths

This is Tisu Boy’s favourite – a mask of a woman. I thought it looks more
like a guy maybe due to the protruding chin which resembles beard…hahah

I prefer something more graphical. This Helmet Mask with Antelope is
carved from a single piece of wood. The holes would have been used to
attach a thick collar of raffia fibres

This looks like an alien! Hahahah..This female mask with distinctive striations
was produced by the Songye people

And this mask with popping eyes! So funny! :p Actually reminded us of
the San Xing Dui 三星堆 masks…hahah. The protruding eyes surrounded
by holes here limit the dancer’s view while performing

The above are just some of the exhibits from Congo River: Arts of Central Africa. There are many many more interesting displays and reading the information you can learn more about the culture. The exhibit is on going at Asian Civilisation Museum until 10 April 2011. Passion Card holders can get a 50% discount. Do drop by and discover the beauty of the arts from Central Africa!

Also see related posts:
> The Mummy Returns – Quest for Immortality
> House of Fame @ JiuFen
House of More Ghost Masks @ JiuFen
House of Ghost Masks @ JiuFen
The Haunted House @ JiuFen


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