The mask hides as much as it reveals, “denies as much as it affirms”, as Claude Lévi-Strauss asserted. Very often the holder of a secret, the mask conceals that which only the initiated should know.
The mask’s power also lies in its capacity to incarnate spirits, a link between man and his ancestors, between the visible and the invisible world. It is inseparable from a mythical context which structures the mode of existence and thought of the majority of traditional societies.
Central to the life of a group or a community, the mask, an indispensable intercessor, is always active.
Mask, Congo, coast of Loango, Kongo, early 20th century, Wood, pigment, monkey hair, metal, textiles, 34.5 x 18.5 x 14.1cm, 273g, Ancient collection of André Lefèvre, 73.1965.10.5
In central Africa, and particularly for the Kongo people, the role of the nganga, a spiritual healer, is fundamental to the life of the village. It is also an extremely dangerous role: the spirits, whether they are natural forces or the deceased, must not attack the healer. That is why the healer wears a mask whilst officiating so as not to reveal that he is human when he is in contact with the spirit world. The nganga concocted protective remedies and prescribed dosages. This explains why the mask is designed to look like it is talking. The colours of the mask allude to the fundamental forces: white evokes death, red is associated with blood and life, and black refers to the earth.