traditional african art from
Central Africa in this collection covers the Democratic Republic of Congo, Northern Angola and Northern Zambia to the South, and the Republic of Congo and Gabon in the Northwest. The Fang, the Kota, and the Punu of Gabon have been featured separately to cover their prolific and exceptional artistic output on their own.
Some of the most productive art producing tribes featured from this vast area are the Chokwe, the Bakongo, the Luba, the Songye, the Kuba, and the Mangbetu. By far he majority of pieces are made from wood which is quite obvious from an area within the tropical rain forest, but ivory, metal, and terra cotta have been used as well, with adornments being enhanced with beads, cowrie shells and shiny metal.
The Solongo were part of the larger Kongo kingdom and shared many rituals and religeous beliefs with the Bakongo. Solongo artists are well renowned for their NKONDI fetishes, but as an income producing sideline from the 1800’s onwards they have also carved and decorated ivory tusks to sell to Europeans, especially Portuguese traders who had been regular visitors in the area since the 15th century. Beautiful and intricate details, executed to perfection. The grain details of the ivory clearly show the age of the artefacts, probably from the 1800’s.
Typical oval face style of the Solongo in Northern Angola. Nkisi are generally fetish figures with secret medicines or magic potions attached all around the body or even hidden inside the body, mostly in the stomach area behind a glass mirror.
I purchased this figure in 1974 when I saw it displayed in a local shop amongst general tourist items. I purchased it instantly as no one there was aware of it’s true value and history, and I didn’t want anyone else to get it before me.
Nkisi is a general word for fetish figures from the Kongo kingdom, the second word Nkondi actually means hunter. This word describes the most powerful Nkisi statues, which were not only used for protection, but also to hunt down evil doers in society. This particular statue comes from the village called Makelebelede in the Southern DRC. The statue was generally known and referred to by locals as MUKANSI, meaning Great God.
This Nkisi NKONDI has a monkey skull embedded in the stomach area, partly visible through a glass covering. It can be seen clearly with the close-up image above. The eyes of the statue are displayed with mirror reflection, enhancing it’s ability to see evil and pick out the culprits. Nails and other metal pieces are hammered into the statue with gusto and vocal abuse in the belief the more the statue is getting hurt, the better it will do it’s function.
Double image masks are rare but not unusual. This is a fetish mask with horns and nails with a delicately carved face. Both faces are nearly identical as can be seen from the two images. The mask displays intricate details as is the norm for Kongo art, like for example the delicately carved teeth. This attention to detail is one of the main features of masks from the area. The mask was most probably worn sideways for greater impact and also for the ease of wearing and seeing better.
This is a very rare statue of a female, with it’s crownlike arrangement of metal spikes and the phallus-like horn towering above. This fetish figure belonged to the community. It was kept with other objects in specially created mini huts, and taken out for important functions. Fetish material was put in the opening of the head where the horn was attached afterwards. As can be seen from the image the wood has deteriorated over time, but if anything, it adds to the visual impact of the statue.
These masks were worn by dancers totally covered with straw. Male masks have a central crest while female masks have a plain rounded finish. These Songye masks are known as KIFWEBE all over the world, but kifwebe is actually only the word for “mask” in the Songye language. This male mask is made out of soft wood while the female mask next to it is from hard wood. Sculptors just used whatever material was available to them, and a master piece can be created out of any material.
A very large and beautiful mask. The white decorative lines, the square mouth, the linear nose and the large eyes with thin slits are typical for Songye masks. Masks were used regularly at funeral and circumcision ceremonies. The dancers wearing the male masks were displaying aggressive behaviour, even teasing, mocking, and upsetting the spectators. The dancer wearing the female masks and outfits displayed more gently flowing feminine movements without any agression
This fetish figure is adorned with magic potion all around the body. The upper body is attached onto what seems to be a buffalo horn. The inside of the horn contains more fetish elements to protect and shield against bad spirits. The facial features are in typical Songye style with the bold white lines and the square mouth.
The Mukenga mask displays the highest status of masks in the Kuba tradition, as it invokes the most powerful of animals, the leopard and the elephant. The elephant is symbolised by the protruding trunk while the cowrie shells create a leopard like coloured pattern on top of the mask.
In the 19th century the Bakwele fled eastwards from their traditional homelands after their neighbours and rivals acquired rifles from the Europeans, probably as a result of the lucrative slave trade. They now reside in an isolated area on the northern frontier of the Republik of the Congo. The Bakwela were traditional hunters and as such this meat axe was a necessary tool. The axe is richly decorated with exquisite engraving.
Beautifully decorated medicine bowl with a carved female ancestor figure as a natural “handle”. Traditionally divination bowls are represented with a female ancestor figure positioned in such a way that it almost guides and assists the diviner to find the hidden meanings and wisdom . This is truly an outstanding bowl of excellent quality and great attention to detail. All details are superbly designed and executed.
The divining bowl, presented by a carved female ancestor figure is traditionally filled with a variety of small objects. It is really up to each diviner to make a selection of objects like shells, small bones, stones or herbs, whatever he believes will assist in his function to discover whatever hidden secrets there might be.
After receiving evil smelling or evil tasting medicine, this handy tool was used to rub the stomach and spread the medicine inside the body. While this sounds a bit unnecessary and far fetched, rubbing the stomach with this tool actually feels very comfortable and adds to the experience of believing in the healing process.
Three female figures with typical Mangbetu elongated hairstyle offering symbolic cups form the base of the vessel. Sitting atop is a frog-shaped figure which serves as a container of whatever special liquid is prepared. A very attractive fairytale frog princess with enticing eyes, ears, and mouth features, also serves as the spout for pouring the liquid. A “door” is attached on the top opening to enable the potion to be mixed and stirred. A very unusuial and interesting piece.
The Hemba have a great tradition of carved stools. The “Master of Buli” is well known for carving stools with very expressive and elongated features of the carriers. This particular carving is definitely influenced by his designs and definitely was created through his influence. Hemba stools are generally quite tall, this one measurers 59 cm which is actually more than a comfortable height, but the main reason probably is to make the occupant stand out tall from the surrounding crowd and as such look more important.
Most Lulua statues have complex scarifications and a typical pointed coiffure. Lulua figures generally carry weapons as they are representing the ideal warriors. This particular female statue holding a cup in the left hand and a weapon in the right was created for the protection of women and children. A very old and finely crafted piece, still in excellent condition despite a few cracks. The detail of the face is exquisite and could probably compare favourably with a modern Miss DRC.
This superb figure has a large cavity at the back which was used for holding special medicine or magic herbs to assist whenever required with the general well being of the sufferers. The statue originates from the eastern border of the Luba empire, and is influenced by the neighbouring Zela people who generally use this light brown wood. A very remarkable feature is that the statue displays no sexual reference to either male or female, as such underpinning it’s sole importance and purpose of spirituality.
This figure symbolising a great spirit is portrayed holding a magic calabash. The blackened wood is in good condition except on the left hand and on the left side of the base where it shows some deterioration, probably due to water damage wherever it was stored. The statue conveys a very strong visual impact.
A unique feature of this gameboard is the unusual presentation with a raised stand at the back to allow for easier operation and turning of the board when playing. It is carved from very heavy wood. Game boards were used throughout Africa for hundreds of years, from the Atlantic in the West to the Indian Ocean in the East.
A beautifully decorated female figure carved out of the tusk. This is a very special status piece. Trumpets like this one normally belonged to royalty or an important chief, and were used to announce their arrival at gatherings or other special occasions, or to silence the crowd for an upcoming speech. The orange/black colour stems from regular applications with palm oil. There is a slight crack at the bottom area, otherwise in excellent condition.
The Luba produced numerous prestigeous objects, decorative stools being a favourite They were used at official ceremonies, not just to sit on, but also to show off and display the owners personal wealth. The side view shows a unique solution where the head is almost doubled up in length and the middle section hidden by the hands and forearms, probably to give extra strength and balance to the seat, but also to create a more balanced sculpture.
At the end of the initiation camp a graduation dance is held where the whole village attends the Makishi dance. The Makishi character is an ancestral spirit who is believed to return for this special celebration. This figure is a free standing statue with the Makishi spirit given a rest on a chair.
The Ovimbudu are a subtribe of the Chokwe people in Angola. Most of their decorated objects are adorned with female images, like this sceptre with Janus images on top (left) and lower down (right). Lovely finely grained wood with a superb smooth finish.. Excellent condition.
This is a real masterpiece. The Luba are known for carving exquisite ceremonial pipes, but I have not seen another as superb as this one. The craftsmanship and attention to detail are outstanding. I came across it in the late 1980’s from one of the regular visiting traders from Central Africa who I knew well. He hadn’t received the piece first hand and unfortunately couldn’t enlighten me of it’s exact whereabouts.
Ivory pendants are the most intimate of all Luba art. Small enough to be caressed with the hands, they were an easy and constant reminder of the revered ancestors. The figure is professionally blackened in selected areas to enhance all major features. It comes from the personal collection of Adamou Mbombo who had kept it for many years.
This “nude” figure relieved of all it’s embellishments now looks very sweet and harmless, but as all Songye carvings, it was a fierce looking fetish statue before, covered in frightening rags and embellishments. By oversight I left it outside in a far corner in the garden and had forgotten about it throughout two wet and cold Cape winters, but it looks powerful in its nudity.
This is a male mask which gives the wearer judiciary powers. The wearer’s body is completely covered. This kind of mask was part of the official duty uniform to authorise the collection of the tributes owed to the chief. There is extremely good detail shown in all parts of the facial features, but the overall balance and facial determination is it’s strongest feature.
A unique and one of my favourite pieces. It doesn’t fit into any of the standard categories and I still don’t know exactly where it originated. At regular intervals, most probably during ceremonies and other gatherings, chicken and other animals were sacrificed and the blood poured over the statue. This gives the unique patchy patina. The face displays utter agony, rarely matched if at all by the best known traditional sculptors anywhere.
A unique and beautifully executed piece. I am not sure of the exact nature and meaning of the mysterious creatures. It shows a phantasy bird ridden by a phantasy human being with a birds beak. It is so exquisitely crafted that there has to be a strong meaning behind the motifs. The carving is one of the famed Mangbetu phantasie animal ceramics.
The Chokwe have lived in the southern part of the Republik of Congo around the Congo River Delta, the northern areas of Angola and inland down to Zambia for many generations. For many centuries they had established a very powerful kingdom and were the first African people to set up formal contacts with Europeans, the Portuguese sea farers and later Portuguese traders. From the 19th century onwards, newer styles were carved and probably traded with the Portuguese, like this particular statue which displays more Portuguese than African features. Like so many objects in my collection, this figure was originally collected by Nji Idriss Mbombo in the late 1950’s.
The Songye reside in the eastern central area of the DRC on the western side of the Lualaba river on a forest covered plateau. They are well known for their striking Kifwebe masks and for their fetish figures. This very powerful figure shows the typical square shaped open mouth, triangular nose and globular eyes of Songye statues. In addition strips of metal were attached to counter evil spirits. Part of the head is hollowed and has extra magical objects inserted. Fetish materials and other special objects like snake skin, feathers and metal necklaces are attached to the neck and head areas. A metal clasp was inserted to prevent the wood from splitting.
The Kuba reside in the central areas of the DRC. This is a “wise old man’s mask”, worn by a dancer who is consulted for his wisdom and sage advise by the others, especially at funerals. The protruding eyes are surrounded by holes which were used by the dancers for seeing. The boldly painted geometric lines and figures could be partly influenced by their neighbours the Songye.
This statue was collected by Nji Idriss Mbombo in the Democratic Republik of Congo during one of his trips through Central Africa. The statue is a symbol of power related to Chibinda Ilunga, the historical founder of the Chokwe empire and was made for high ranking individuals. Although carved out of relatively light wood the artistic detail and features are very impressive.
This is an extremely rare, unusual and very powerful figure. As can be seen quite clearly by the distorted facial features and scary looking details, this statue was paraded to put fear into the assembled community. To the contrary, at other times it was also used to scare away bad spirits and uplift the community. It was covered with all kinds of libations, and it has magic potion hidden in the back of the head.
This rather large and very simplified statue portrays a strong and healthy male person. It displays the physical presence the young initiates should try to emulate. It is quite unusual and the figure, the face and hairstyle actually reminded me more of American native Indians, than of African sculpture when I first saw it. This statue is very unique. It was originally collected in 1957. The longer you look at it, the more it grows on you.
Chibinda Ilunga is the Luba ancestor of the Chokwe people. He is renowned as a superb hunter, and was seen as archetypal chief who looks after the well being of his people. He is always displayed with elaborate headgear as a sign of his royal rank. The sculpture typically displays a healthy and powerful body of a hunter, as well as the sensitivity and intelligence of a great leader’s face. .
Traditionally Mangbetu have wrapped the heads of infants in tightly wrapped cloths to create an elongated shape of the head. This shape is further enhanced with their extended hairstyle. These rather abstract figures on top of the pot display the typical Mangbetu style. These kind of decorated pats are not relly practical and were produced as a hobby, but are by now collector’s items.
This is an unusual and rarely seen theme, depicting the actual birth of a child. It is probably made by the same sculptor that created the circumcision in the next image. Both sculptures were probably ordered by a high ranking person as part of his families history, just like people nowadays have photo albums or photo books. The sculptures were probably created in the early 1900’s when people started to be influenced by European culture.
The act of circumcision is the most important physical aspect of the initiation period, however it is very rarely portrayed. This and the birth sculpture were collected by Nji Idriss Mbombo in 1957 during one of his trips where he taught many Congolese how to bake bread and set up bakeries. In return much of his remuneration received was in traditional art and sculpture, as not enough money was available to pay for his sevices.
This mask was used by sourcerers at funerals of high ranking or otherwise distinguished people. The colour white in many African societies is an interpretation of death. Yombe masks like this one display amazing attention to detail, like the filed teeth, and exquisite ears, eyes and nose. The Bakongo are known for driving nails into the body of fetish figures, here the nails merely underline the importance of the mask.
Pygmies still survive in parts of the tropical forest areas of the Congo, Gabon, and Southern Cameroon. This war horn or trumpet comes from Cameroon based Pygmy tribes. There is little knowledge of Pygmy history and traditions, so is unclear if the Pygmies used these trumpets for their gatherings or just copied them from neighbouring people.
This fetish figure served for the sole purpose of protecting the monarch from evil doers. The glass inserts demonstrate the wisdom of clairvoyance, the ability to pick up any enemy. Powerful potion is inserted inside a thick neck brace, and metal objects and nails have been hammered into the body to provide additional strength and wisdom to detect the culprits who are out to deceive the monarch. The right hand was holding a spear, in this case not for defence, but for pointing out the culprits.
The Bakongo are the first people in sub saharan Africa who had contacts with Europeans, the Portuguese in this case. This fetish figure belongs to a set of 4 statues who as a unit protected the monarch from all evil. Common to all of them are the glass or mirror plates to see the evil. The nails and metal pieces were pierced into the body to drive out evil thoughts. The open mouth and outstretched tongue are also common features, together with the magic potion inserted into various parts of and around the body.
This Nkisi figure has an extra base added on with a hole cut out in the middle. It served as the kings stylus holder, as well as the pipe holder, whichever was required. A metallic decorative plaque was originally attached to the stomach area, the indentations are still visible, but either has fallen off or was removed for its value. It was first purchased and collected in the late 1950’s.
This is a masterful construction. Wood, Ivory, copper wire and copper studs are beautifully combined and integrated in the making of this pipe. This pipe was for usage of the chief alone, and was thought to have virtues of blessings and prosperity. The pipe was officially used once at annual festivities as a symbol of peace and wisdom. Originally purchased in the latre 1950’s.
The Lualua believe that looking after your stomach is key to ongoing health. This statue of a man holding his stomach is a symbolic reminder of that.
The Yombe are related to the much larger Bakongo people. This female maternity figure is was created for healing female ailments, mainly related to fertility and child bearing.
The Luba created numerous objects for the royal court activities. These prestigeous pieces were usually decorated with female figures or were given feminine form. There is no sexual evidence seen in this piece, except for the baby carried on the back, identifying the figure as a female.
The Tsogo live in the mountainous regions of Western Gabon. Tsogo masks represent supernatural beings. They were mainly used at initiation ceremonies. This mask is in excellent condition except for the top section which is worn through, indicating that artefacts were probably attached at the top when the mask was paraded.
The most eye catching aspect is that of the sitting warrior who is represented twice, on the handle of the dagger, and on the sheath. This was most probably done for easy identification. The blade is beautifully shaped and the sheath has extra attractive decoration with seeds and what looks like white animal teeth. The blade quite obviously is rusted by now,
This piece was collected in 1957 together with the circumcision and birth giving statues. It comes from the same source and probably was carved by the same artist. Traditionally one would have expected prominently featured sex organs, but there are none, just a peaceful scene of loving family members, probably husband and wife, embracing.
A phantasy work of art. The piece can be described but not really understood unless one has direct information from the artist. The Mangbetu have been making these unreal pot designs for a long time and they are now being admired and valued as collectors items on their own.
Another unusual design. The figures probably mostly resemble monkeys, but could also be interpreted as dogs, and of course there is a definite human element as well. This pot was also created for the collectors market, but is a unique and unusual piece to have in a collection.
A unique and powerful statue of Chibunda Ilunga, the mystical founder and first king of the Chokwe. He has been portrayed in many sculperes over the centuries, always looking fit and wise, a positive example to his people. This sculture is no different, worked from beautiful wood, showing off his physical power and well being.
I received this pot together with a large consignment of useful day to day utensils in the 1980’s. The surface and colours created by all kinds of cooking emissions gives it a real artistic feel. The circular tin plate or medal was probably added to fix a leak, but might also be just an adornment.
The Luba are well known for carving exquisite everyday objects, with pipes featuring regularly made from wood, ceramics, and sometimes with the addition of ivory, beads or shells. This pipe with it’s intricate design of a female figure probably belonged to a chief or senior official, as the general population used only very standard pipes.
Pwo masks represent the ideal female. They are carved with intricate detail of all facial details and scarifications. The mask is believed to spread fertility and as such was given as a wedding gift to the young bride.
Most Songye fetish figures are male and stand on a circular base. The arms are set apart with the hands resting on the stomach. The face has globular eyes, a square mouth and an elongated chin. Colors were added to the face to protect against evil spirits. The prominnt navel, besides painted white, also has a hole for the insertion of fetish material. A nail is shown under the chin area which was originally used to attach some more fetish.
Kifwebe is the common name given to Songye masks. A direct translation from the Songye language shows that Kifwebe is the actual word for mask. The mask has linear incisions and the typicl globular eyes, a square protruding mouth. The large crest ending up in the nose means it is a male mask. A large crest makes the mask more powerful. The mask is painted in strong primary colours to add to the visual impact.