A Chokwe Ensemble
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Height: 65 in. (165 cm.)
Collection Alex Van Opstal (1874-1936)
By descent through family
Artcurial, Paris, 10 June 2008, lot 75
Judith Schoffel and Christophe de Fabry, Paris, acquired from the above
Private Collection
Chavanne, Jean-François, Clair-Obscur, edition of 222, Gallery Schoffel / Valluet, Paris, 2008, plate, np
Paris, Gallery Schoffel / Valluet, Clair-Obscur, September 2008

Brought to you by

Susan Kloman
Susan Kloman

Lot Essay

To Teach and Protect
This extraordinary Chokwe costume is made of finely woven fiber. Through the use of different colors (dark brown, light brown, red and black) complex geometric patterns were woven into the torso, while the limbs feature horizontal bands. The performer’s identity would be obscured by the hairstyle made of many braided strands that finish in small knots. Mounted on a mannequin of European origin, the present offers a life-size rendition of how the masked dancer would be seen.
This costume was used during the initiation of young Chokwe boys, known as mukunda. This initiation required a period of seclusion that could last up to a year away from village life. It prepared boys for adult life so that they could become fulfilled and socially accomplished adult members of Chokwe society. Principles of religion, morality, cosmology, history, and social responsibility were transmitted to a new generation at the initiation camps. Mukanda marked a symbolic death for the novices as children; at graduation they were reborn as adults and reintroduced into society.
Mukanda initiation included the participation of masked performers who "brought to life" concepts of ancestral influence. There were more than one hundred types of masked ancestral characters, each with different physical and behavioral attributes. Ancestral masks, makishi, instructed novices within mukanda camps and theatrically represent aspects of Chokwe cosmology in their performances. While most of the ancestral characters that performer during the initation ceremonies (such as Chihongo (chief), Pwo (beautiful woman), Ngulu (pig), and the European or Katoyo (foreigner)), were personified by means of a figurative mask, others did not need a wooden mask.
Unlike the several anthropomorphic and zoomorphic characters known, a great number of makishi were hybridized forms, meant to represent supernatural powers and forces – rather than human/animal relatable behaviors or types. These are still personae, have names, and are considered ancestral, but they primarily channel supernatural attributes and have very specific roles with mukanda initiation. It remains unclear which one of the many mukishi characters is represented here. Fiber masks were generally constructed within initiation camps and burned or disposed of after mukanda initiations are over; therefore very few remain in public and private collections.
Alexis van Opstal (1874-1936) was the first president and co-founder of the shipping company Compagnie maritime belge. Under his leadership, the Antwerp-Matadi line was re-established after the First World War and he commissioned the construction of several ships that would transport many Belgians to the colony. It is undoubtedly this direct link with Congo that sat at the origin of his passion for the art of the country. After having constructed a large private residence in Rhode-Saint-Genèse near Brussels, he reserved a room to house his growing collection of African art. This ‘Salon noir’ would remain intact until 2008 when the collection was dispersed at auction by his granddaughter.
Van Opstal was one of the most prominent Belgian collectors in the early decades of the 20th century and meticulously documented and numbered his collection, counting up until 899 items upon the time of his untimely death. In 1937, his daughters would lend 54 objects of his collection to the acclaimed exhibition “Kongo Art” organized by Frans Olbrechts in Antwerp, confirming the collection’s importance. Unlike his contemporaries, Van Opstal didn’t only look at masks and statuary, but also had a strong interest in decorative arts, utilitarian objects, and weapons. Interior photos from 1936, show the amazing juxtaposition these works of art were presented in. The inclusion of the present complete mask is a testament to the open-mindedness with which one of Belgian’s great entrepreneurs collected.

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