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Updated: July 30, 2011 19:48 IST

Life along the Congo

Rupa Gopal
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INSPIRATION: Dimanche by Picasso. Photo courtesy: ACM
INSPIRATION: Dimanche by Picasso. Photo courtesy: ACM

Over a hundred rare objects, focusing on face masks and female power of Central Africa, were on display at a recent exhibition in Singapore.Rupa Gopal

The Congo has been the life-force of Central Africa, sweeping across jungles and swamps, forests and lush grasslands, nurturing various unique civilizations, tribes and ethnic traditions. This uniqueness from the Dark Continent was brought to Singapore, showcased in an exhibition of over a hundred rare objects, focusing on face masks, ancestor worship and female power. Art and sculpture dominated, bringing strangely beautiful artifacts from bygone times. The crowning glory was the special showing of four Picassos, based on the African theme.

The after-life seemed to have gripped much of Africa, not just the Nile Valley. Remains of respected elders were secured for all time in reliquary figures, in baskets or wooden containers. Portable shrines in the form of carved personalities represented ancestors, sure to guard and protect the people. These were preserved by repeated applications of palm oil, perhaps also done to activate the idol's dormant powers as a medium. The tribes of Fang and Kota in Gabon, the Kuba and Luba, Punu and Kwele all brought a well-displayed glimpse of the vastness of Africa's artistic traditions.

Ritual masks

Heart-shaped masks were common among the peoples living along the Congo — these were usually covered with a local white pigment called “mpemba”. Such masks were worn at complex native ritual ceremonies, and dances, along with dresses made of leaves, plant fibres, or rough woven cloth. The “kwele” tribe used masks with encircling horns, a reflection of “ekuk”, their protective forest spirit.

The “okuyi” mask idealised female beauty among the Punu of Gabon. The women were venerated and immortalised in masks and figures — often these figures show postures such as holding up a stool-like seat — these were meant for ancestors to be seated. Women were rulers, queens, high priestesses, mothers, or just important relatives — all designating authority, highlighted by their seat.

African mystique

The Portugese came to Africa in the 16th Century, and African mystique began to be carried to the European mainland. The Congo region was colonised in the 19th Century, and the first exhibition of African artistic objects was held in Paris, in 1887, highlighting Gabon's Kota heritage. Some years later saw Henri Matisse, Derain, Modigliani and Pablo Picasso get inspired by African art, in their obsession with surrealism.

It is thought that Picasso was enchanted with the Kongo figure shown him by his friend Matisse, in 1906. Next year saw Picasso observe and absorb African art at the Palais du Trocadero, Paris. This set him on the track of African masks and sculptures, collecting all that he could. Firmly denying any African influence in his art — “African art? Never heard of it” said he: Picasso gave Africa its due credit in his later years, admitting to its influence on his work.

The painting Dimanche (Sunday) was so abstract, it called upon the viewer's entire concentration to come to a conclusion. One of four Picasso exclusive originals from his early African period (1907-1919) at this show, Africa remained a continued fascination for him, right up to his end.

The exhibition displayed objects from the Musee du quai Branly Paris, the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, the Leiden Museum, and the Musee national Picasso in Paris. It was the first of its kind to be held in South East Asia, a joint effort by the ACM and Musee du quai Branly.

Keywords: ArtsexhibitionMuseum

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