Ancient Spirits Incarnated in Rare U.S. Exhibition of African Ritual Art

Andrew Jones
National Geographic News
June 15, 2001

Cryptic figurines, enchanting ritual masks, and spiritual power symbols for communication with the dead combine in a new African art exhibit that makes public the power and spiritualism behind African art traditions.

This unusual collection of 140 spiritual and cultural art objects from sub-Saharan Africa went on display this week at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

Titled "In the Presence of Spirits," the exhibit features objects that reflect the influences of the supernatural world in African traditional culture. They date from about 1850 to the mid-20th century.

The objects are part of a unique African art collection at the National Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon, Portugal. This is the first time the art pieces have been exhibited in the United States, and most have never been on view outside of Europe.

This is a collection that never went through the hands of dealers and this makes it somewhat special, said Frank Herreman, curator and director of exhibitions at the Museum of African Art in New York. In many ways, this is African art that we never see.

The exhibit is organized according to geography and the numerous cultural groups represented in the Lisbon museum's ethnographic collection. Highlights include figures, decorated stools and chairs, pipes, masks, staffs, and dolls used by members of royalty and spiritual figures to summon supernatural forces. Objects of prestige and power, initiation and funerary rituals, and both secular and religious symbols are included.

The most striking part of the exhibit is its array of ritual masks, adorned with feathers, raffia (a palm tree fiber), paper, pigments, twigs, and pieces of barkcloth and textiles. While some are made of wood, most are fragile because of the perishable materials used in their construction.

Much of African art was not meant to be used for very long, Herreman explained. Many times the masks were only used one time for a particular ritual and were then destroyed.

Dan Peoples

The exhibit begins with a selection of masks, dolls, and stools from western and central Africa, including two masks of the Dan people of Côte d'Ivoire. Many of their masks are used for incarnations of supernatural beings, although some are worn in initiation ceremonies.

The Dan are farmers who live in the upper reaches of the Cavally River, spanning the border of Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia. They believe that their supreme being, Zlan, created a mask creature called Ge to protect the community from misfortune and ensure its continued existence. The exhibit displays two different mask renditions of Ge, sculpted in different ways from wood.

Kongo Peoples

The second room of the exhibit displays art from the Kongo peoples (or Bakongo) who encompass a number of Kikongo-speaking groups who are situated on either side of the lower reaches of the Congo River. The capital of a large and well-organized Kongo Kingdom, Mbanza Kongo, was located in what is now northern Angola.

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