The exhibition "The Congo River" has been produced by


Congo River catalogue, co-edition between the musée du quai Branly and the Fonds Mercator, 400 p., 60 €

Buy this catalogue online (link to the RMN website, new window)

The exhibition's special issue: 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

Exhibition curator: 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 true initiation trip that will take the visitor from the forests in the north to the savannahs in the south, the exhibition highlights the existing links between the works produced by various Bantu-speaking communities living in the areas lying on the banks of the majestic Congo River.

Through the various masks and Fang, Hemba, Kwele or Kota sculptures, the exhibition draws attention to the conception, structure and the artistic links that bring together Central Africa's major works.

The exhibition's three complementary themes are based on a set of basic common principles to these iconophilic peoples:

  • the "heart shaped" facial masks and statues that ensure 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 savannah kingdoms. The women notably balance men's authority of men and are linked to the mystery of the earth's regeneration, to agriculture and to human life.

The relationships between the cultures of the forested areas and those of the savannahs are expressed in the material culture. Despite their differences - one could even say their contradictions - they share common languages, similar institutions, related initiation and therapeutic rites and address natural spirits and their ancestors through dance and incantation. The links between the populations of the great forest and subequatorial savannah are equally manifest in their material productions. This is demonstrated by the major works presented in the exhibition.

François Neyt, exhibition curator


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 different communities' artistic productions. The works show the extent to which these communities share the same modes of thought and expression and reveal the way in which they transformed the forested areas into the southern savannahs.

The exhibition is divided into three large sections, preceded by an introduction on the geography and history of the area. Photographs, videos and drawings illustrate each section by showing the works in their original context and by providing an insight into 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 and extremely simplified style. They refer to spirits which “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 community life is used in rituals composed of music, dance and songs.

The works on display follow a geographical itinerary spanning 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 multiple 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 developed a skillfully refined graphic art over 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 artistic expression inspired by the transcendental forms of the great equatorial forest, immediately captivated artists from the Western world.

Louis Perrois, Ethnologist, honorary research director of ORSTOM

Extracts from the work: "musée du quai Branly, The Collection"

Section 2 : reliquaries and ancestor figures

The relics of the village ancestors are honored in family cults. Aside from the skulls of the clan's male ancestors, those of warrior heroes, of the clan's mothers 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
  • monumental statues of the Hemba,Tumbwe, Holo-Holo, Boyo, and Tabwa ancestors
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 prohibited from attending these sacred ceremonies as they require an initiation beforehand.

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

Extract from the "Masterpieces in the collections of the musée du quai Branly"

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.

The Kongo Queen Nzinga of the Matamba, the royal spouses of the Kubas and the Lubas and so many other mothers honored in various cultural groups are testimony to the unique importance of women in their relationship with this world and exposure to the world of the invisible. Fertile and provider of nourishment, the woman is profoundly united with the cycle of life, the new moon, agriculture, harvests and the fertility of both 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 metal is comparable to giving birth. She is intrinsically linked to the culture that she transmits, to divination and the therapeutic rituals that she presides over.

This section presents the following works, following the river's movement from West to East:

  • Punu, Eshira, Kongo masks
  • Kongo feminine representations
  • 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

This work's region of origin 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. Only the terrifying dance executed by the mask's wearer could succeed in concealing the mask's otherwise serene and soft appearance.

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

Extracts from "Musée du quai Branly, The Collection"

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