the exhibition "The Congo River" has been put up with


learn more about the catalogue Congo River, coédition musée du quai Branly et Fonds Mercator, 400 p., 60 €

buy this catalogue online (vers le site de la RMN, nouvelle fenêtre)

le hors-série de l'exposition : Fleuve Congo, Connaissance des Arts, 36 p., 9 €

The Congo River

Arts from Central Africa

  • East Mezzanine
  • Collection ticket 8.50 € full price and 6 € discount price

from tuesday 22nd june to sunday 3rd october 2010

curator of the exhibition: François Neyt

scientific advisor: Angèle Martin

This summer, the musée du quai Branly will showcase 170 major works and eighty documents as part of an important exhibition devoted to the artistic traditions of Central Africa, namely Gabon, the Republic of Congo and
the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A real trip of initiation that will take the visitor from the forests in the north to the savannahs in the south, the exhibition brings out the links existing between the works produced in the areas lying on the banks of the majestic Congo River by various communities which speak the Bantu language.

Behind the variety of masks and Fang, Hemba, Kwele or Kota sculptures, the exhibition highlights the major works emanating from Central Africa, in their conception, their structures and the artistic links that bring them closer.

The three themes of the exhibition, fundamental in the life of these image-loving peoples, are complementary:

  • the "heart shaped face" masks and statues ensuring the unity and identity of the respective groups;
  • the importance of the founding ancestor and the eminent members of his lineage;
  • the representation of women in the kingdoms of the savannah, balancing the authority of men, linked to the mystery of regeneration of the earth, agriculture and human life.

The relationships between the cultures of the forested areas andthose of the savannahs are expressed in the material culture. Beyond the institutional and cultural transformations, the cultural unity of Central Africa is undeniable. It is an entire heritage of humanity, so often cut up into cultural groups separated by colonial borders, which comes to the fore. Beyond the differences between various communities, there are in fact common styles and usages which make it possible to get a better understanding of the masterpieces that have been showcased here.

François Neyt


an audio-guided tour of the exhibition is available on site, in French.

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the exhibition

The exhibition is dedicated to three countries representing a third of the African continent: Gabon, the Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a cross-disciplinary reading of the sculptures from West to East, the exhibition underlines the unity of the artistic productions of the different communities sharing the same modes of thought and expression and reveals their transformations from forested areas to the southern savannahs.

The exhibition has been developed in three large sequences, preceded by an introduction on the geography and history of this geographic zone. In each section, documents – photographs, videos, drawings – illustrate the idea by showing the works in their original context and by providing an illumination on the history and historiography of these artistic forms.

section 1 : The "heart-shaped face"

Heart-shaped masks can be found from Gabon to eastern Congo, in a stark style simplified to the extreme. They refer to spirits, “illuminate the founding events of the past, and continue to be the harbingers of blessings and new hopes” François Neyt explains. This fundamental sign of the lives of the communities is used in rituals comprising music, dance and songs.

The works are presented as per a geographical itinerary spanning across productions from the West to the East, from Gabon to both the Congos:

  • the Fang and related communities
  • the Kwele
  • the Mbede-Kota
  • the Tsogho, Galwa, Aduma, Vuvi and Teke (Tsaayi)
  • the Ngbaka, Ngbandi and Ngombe
  • the Mbole, Yela, Metoko, Komo, Jonga,Lengola and Kela
  • the Lega and Bembe
facial mask with six eyes, Kwele, 19th century © musée du quai Branly photo Patrick Gries

The six-eyed Lapicque mask comes under the category of animal masks with a "trunk". Oval in shape, it presents a flat face devoid of nose and mouth divided by an elongated axial excrescence resembling the trunk of an elephant. […] Like other masks from the region (Fang and Kota in particular), the multiplication of eyes signifies that this forest spirit "sees everything" even the things that we try to hide from it. […] This mask of great and rare workmanship clearly shows how Kwele artists, far from using simple expressions, had on the contrary developed a skillfully refined graphic art in the course of time, inspired from an imagination fed by dreamlike visions as a result of the intake of hallucinogenic substances consumed during rites. […] We can see how this mask, the quintessence of an art inspired from the great equatorial forest with its graphics depicting the universal truth, had outright fascinated artists from the Western world.

Louis Perrois, Ethnologist, honorary research director of ORSTOM

In Musée du quai Branly, The Collection, (extracts)

section 2 : reliquaries and ancestor figures

The relics of the village ancestors are honored in family cults. Aside from the skulls of male ancestors of the clan, those of warrior heroes, of mothers of the clan, and of reputed women are preserved in sculpted reliquaries and sometimes decorated with pearls, bones and other materials.

This section begins with the evocation of a Tsogho temple (Gabon), and continues with the presentation of the following works:

  • reliquaries with an opening in the back of the Bamba-Mbede
  • effigies of the Teke and the Yansi
  • reliquary statues of the Fang
  • reliquaries of the Mahongwe and the Kota-Obamba
  • effigies of the Kuyu with moveable heads, figures of ancestors of the Bwende and the Bembe
  • ancestral figures of the Vili, Yombe, Kongo
  • royal Kuba figures
  • effigies of the Songye and the Kusu
  • great ancestor statuary of the Hemba,Tumbwe, Holo-Holo, Boyo, and Tabwa
statuette of the guardian of the shrine © musée du quai Branly photo Michel Urtado, Thierry Ollivier

The Kotas from the Eastern part of Gabon practise the bwete, the worship of the ancestors – ancestors who are feared but whose protection is also sought at the same time. During the initiation rites presided over by the family priest, the relics are fed with sacrificial blood and food items are offered to them which are subsequently consumed by the living members. […] As for the sculptures, sand is rubbed on them so that they retain their luster before they are brandished by the dancers. Women, children and unknown people are disallowed from attending these sacred ceremonies as they require an initiation beforehand.

Marine Degli, in charge of studies at the musée du quai Branly

in Masterpieces in the collections of the musée du quai Branly (extracts)

section 3 : the feminine representation in the kingdoms of the savannah

This section highlights the feminine representations in the communities living along the Congo River, from Punu masks to Luba representations spanning across the Phemba maternity figures of the Kongo.

Right from the queen Nzinga of the Matamba among the Kongos to the royal spouses of the Kubas or the Lubas, and so many other mothers honored in various cultural groups, the importance of women in their relationship with this world and exposure to the world of the invisible is unique. Fertile and the nourishing giver, the woman is profoundly united with the cycle of life, the new moon, agriculture, harvests and to fertility related to the earth and the family. She is the one who shapes ceramics; the stoves are often adorned by women’s breasts because the melting of metals is similar to a delivery. She is essentially linked to the culture that she hands over, to divination and the therapeutic rituals that she presides over.

This section proposes a presentation of the following works moving from the West of the River to the East:

  • Punu, Eshira, Kongo masks
  • feminine representations at the Kongos
  • masks and effigies of the Holo, Yaka and Suku
  • Pende masks and effigies of the Kuba
  • representations of Luluwa warriors and maternity figures
  • the Ancient and feminine ideal of the Cokwe; the Luba feminine representation
Ikwara mask, Gabon, Punu, 19th century © musée du quai Branly photo Patrick Gries

The original region of this work is located in Gabon, to the south of the Ogooué river, at the Punu. […] This mask is a highly balanced piece: the headgear forms two voluminous cockles on the head and small wings above the ears. The frontal scarifications come across as a succession of strongly highlighted dots while the temples and corners of the lips contain simple incisions. The uniformity and symmetry reinforce the idealization of a certain degree of naturalism. The serene and soft appearance of the face undoubtedly vanishes completely with the dance executed by the wearer of the mask, who alone could manage to make it terrifying.

Aurélien Gaborit, in charge of the Africa collections at the musée du quai Branly

in Musée du quai Branly, The Collection, (extracts)

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