5 minutes with... A 19th-century Congolese Kifwebe mask

International Head of African & Oceanic Art Susan Kloman has a close encounter with the ‘intangible other-worldliness’ of this Songye Kifwebe mask from the Democratic Republic of Congo, offered in the Art of Africa  sale in New York on 14 May

In 1933, one of the largest exhibitions of African art ever seen in Europe opened in Brussels at the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire. It was organised by collector and dealer Jeanne Walschot (1896-1977), who was a true champion of African art. This was not only one of first big privately organised exhibitions on the continent, but also the first with objects from a single collection.

Walschot was a flamboyant, Nancy Cunard-like figure who carefully cultivated her avant-garde persona by being photographed beside her masks and wearing turbans and African jewellery. Through her extraordinary collection she drew the radical members of the French and Belgian intelligentsia into her orbit, most notably the Surrealists André Breton and Max Ernst.

‘She’s legendary,’ confirms Christie’s African Art specialist Susan Kloman. ‘Jeanne Walschot was a pioneering female collector of art on a grand scale, not just from Africa, but from all over the world.’

Jeanne Walschot with pieces from her extensive collection of African art, photographed circa 1931. Photograph taken by Germain Van Parys. Photo GERMAINIMAGE

Jeanne Walschot with pieces from her extensive collection of African art, photographed circa 1931. Photograph taken by Germain Van Parys. Photo: GERMAINIMAGE

Among the highlights in her collection was an extraordinary 19th-century Congolese Songye Kifwebe  mask, which was valued for its craftsmanship and highly original geometric design. Kloman describes it as ‘mesmerising’, and adds that it has ‘a very powerful, almost supernatural’ aura about it.

‘For the Songye,’ explains the specialist, ‘white symbolises goodness, purity, health, reproductive strength, joy, peace, wisdom and beauty. The colour is associated most commonly with the moon, the light, and daytime.’

‘The Modernists, from the Cubists to the Surrealists, recognised that the artists of the Songye were taking art to a whole other dimension’ — Susan Kloman

The stripes on the mask are thought to represent a zebra, which is intriguing as there are no zebras in Songye territory. ‘They probably knew of their existence from neighbouring tribes,’ says Kloman, ‘and so the creature gained a mythological status in their culture.’

Songye Kifwebe  masks were first collected in the 1900s by the pioneering artists of Modernism, who were captivated by their bold, graphic style. Then in the 1920s, the Surrealists — motivated by Freudian ideas of the uncanny — became fascinated by the dream-like qualities of the masks. 

‘Artists like Picasso and Modigliani were asking the question, “How do we portray the supernatural, make it tangible?”. The Modernists, from the Cubists to the Surrealists, recognised that the artists of the Songye were doing something similar,’ says the specialist. ‘They were taking art to a whole other dimension.’

The Walschot-Schoffel Kifwebe mask, Songye Master Artist, Democratic Republic of Congo. Height 14⅝  in (37 cm). Estimate on request. Offered in Art of Africa Masterworks on 14 May 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The Walschot-Schoffel Kifwebe mask, Songye Master Artist, Democratic Republic of Congo. Height: 14⅝ in (37 cm). Estimate on request. Offered in Art of Africa Masterworks on 14 May 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Alexander Calder also studied Songye masks, and later used them as inspiration for his sculptures. ‘There is a similar spirit in his spirals and mobiles,’ Kloman points out. ‘That incorporeal quality generated by movement and energy.’

The specialist believes the mask’s design also made reference to the metaphysical: the lines create an optical illusion that can be hypnotic, pre-dating the experiments of the Op Art movement in the 1960s pioneered by artists such as Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely.

The Walschot-Schoffel Kifwebe  mask is thought to have been made in the 19th century, although it is unusual to date such works since they have often been in the culture for a long time before they become part of a collection. ‘You can tell from the patina and the wear that this was a significant object,’ says Kloman.

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In the 1970s the leading French collector Alain Schoffel acquired the mask from the Alain de Monbrison Gallery in Paris. Schoffel began collecting when he was 10 years old and went on to build one of the most significant collections of African and Oceanic art in the world, with two iconic works from his collection now residing in the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre. 

What drew Schoffel to the Songye Kifwebe  mask are the same qualities that captivated the Surrealists and Jeanne Walschot. ‘The proportions are beautiful, and it has this interiority that is unlike any other mask of its kind,’ Kloman states. ‘The artist who made it captured that intangible other-worldliness; it is an opening to the fifth dimension.’