A Master of Geometric Abstraction: The Songye Sculptor
The Walschot-Schoffel Kifwebe Mask is the most beautiful and important example of this iconic type to come to market. The mask evinces a hypnotic grip through the sculptor’s genius of marrying powerful proportions and sensual volumes with graphic lines. The work’s thoughtful interiority is expressed in the eyes under the forehead which rolls down to the mouth and chin, which also lift upwards – a state of perpetual animation. The lines imbue it, simultaneously, with palpable vitality through the impression of movement, it heaves like waves that swell and contract.
The Fourth Dimension
More than a three-dimensional sculpture, it has a fourth dimension. The mastery of the Songye artist who created this work in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in the nineteenth century, is evident. The Kifwebe type of mask is the most iconic in all of African artistry, and has compelled artists since the early 20th century and appears prominently in the works of Alexander Calder and later, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The highly graphic quality and abstraction of the mask has made its original function in the Congo – that of a supernatural being – evident to modern artists, who also strove to visually express that which is intangible.
This mask was first in the legendary collection of Jeanne Walschot in Belgium before 1930, and made its way to another major collection by the 1980s – that of Alain Schoffel. The ‘eye’ of Alain Schoffel is synonymous with the art of Africa and the Pacific of epic quality, with works formerly in his collection now represented at the Louvre Museum.
Power incarnate: The Kifwebe Mask
The society for which these masks were created called, bwadi bwa kifwebe, is the most important association in the east of the Songye region. With the power of judicial and social control, and thereby measures of economic control, as a redistributor of the levies it raises. Some sources suggest the bifwebe were linked with rituals such as the investiture of a new chief, new moon rites, initiation of new members into the bukishi society, and proceedings for young males initiates.
One general distinction was made with reference to the function of male and female masks. Male masks participated during rites of passage for security reasons, policing the bukishi camp (where socio-religious lessons are given) and place of circumcision to ward off women and the non-initiated. On the other hand, female masks, which appeared on the occasion of a chief’s death or investiture and during lunar rites, played an integral role in the symbolic composition of these rituals by animating benevolent spirit forces through dance.
The kifwebe creature least resembles a man. He walks upright like a man, yet is known to fly like a bird. He has hands like man, but only three fingers. He talks, but in an odd falsetto voice. Although he carries a stick like a man, threatening to inflict punishment by physical means, he can bring death to his victims mystically. In announcing his approach he produces thunderous echoing sounds and the deep growling of a lion. Entering a village he runs wildly and frantically like a beast set loose or one on the track of its prey. At the same time the kifwebe, especially the female type, can demonstrate the cultivated and learned movements of dance or the stately poise of dignitaries.
Signs and Symbols
To the uninitiated certain morphological features of the kifwebe are visually readable, wheras others are alluded to metaphorically, mainly through accompanying songs of the bwadi. The power of the kifwebe, said to be concentrated in the face, is visually perceived in features similar to those of animals considered ferocious such as the crocodile, lion and zebra. The crocodile is perhaps the most feared of aquatic animals. The lion who plunders the village and bush dominates through sheer strength and brutality. On the other hand, the zebra, an animal alien to the Songye region, is an anomaly and probably something of a mystery to the inhabitants. Hence the striations of the kifwebe emphasise the supernatural, that is, a transmutation or metamorphosis, not only in association with the zebra, but simultaneously with the striped bushbuck antelope (to which reference is evoked by the masqueraders name, ngulungu). Significantly, too, the aggressiveness of both animals matches the temperament of the kifwebe. Related to the striped species of animals Hersak also includes a reference to the porcupine. The identified Hystrix sp. is the largest African rodent whose long quills (up to 30 centimetres), capable of causing fatal wounds, are striped in black, brown and white. Thus the kifwebe, having the snout of a crocodile, the mane of a lion, the stripes of a zebra and antelope and nasal hair sharp like the quills of the porcupine, is potentially endowed with the behavioral characteristics of all these animals.
For the Songye white symbolizes goodness, purity, health, reproductive strength, joy, peace, the attainment of wisdom, and beauty. It is associated most commonly with the moon, light, daytime, manioc flour, semen and mother’s milk. The white pigment used is called ntoshi. It is a clay (kaolin) most commonly brought from river beds which is dried, crushed to powder and applied either wet or dry. The specific use of white clay from rivers and forests seems to activate the female mask physically, linking its symbolic representation to aspects of the environment associated with the sacred, ancestral domain. Rivers and certain species of trees in the forest are conceived of as points of interaction with the ancestors who are responsible for the descent of the new-born to earth. The female bifwebe are said to call these descendant spirits from the forest to the village.
The absence of a crest and the signalling white pigment make this mask clearly recognizable as female. Unlike the striated male masks, traditional female bifwebe are characterized by contrasting fields of colour and more numerous and finer grooves than the other types of masks. In comparison with the male masks, significantly fewer examples of female masks exist in public and private collections. This confirms the singular participation of the female bifwebe in the bwadi ensemble.
Hersak (D.), Songye Masks and Figure Sculpture, London, 1986
Maes (J.), Aniota-Kifwebe. Les Masques des Populations du Congo Belge et le Matériel des Rites de Circoncision, Antwerp, 1924
Merriam (A.P.), Kifwebe and other masked and unmasked societies among the Basongye, Tervuren, 1978
Mestach (J.W.), Etudes Songye. Formes et symbolique, essai d’analyse, Munich, 1985
Neyt (F.), La Rédoutable Statuaire Songye, Antwerp, 2004
Olbrechts (F.M.), Les Arts Plastiques du Congo Belge, Antwerp, 1946
Samain (A.), La Langue Kisonge, Brussels, 1923
Van Overbergh (C.), Basonge, Brussels, 1908
Wenga-Mulayi (M.), Etude socio-morphologique des masques blancs Luba ou ‘Bifwebe’, Diss. Université Nationale du Zaïre, Lubumbashi, 1974
The Legendary Collection of Jeanne Walschot
Jeanne Walschot (1896-1977) was one of the few and first women to become a dealer and collector of African Art. Based in Brussels, she had exceptional long career, spanning over nearly 50 years, and played a pivotal role in the promotion of African art in Belgium. She opened her first gallery in 1923, which she renamed Art Nègre in 1926. Unmarried, she lived together with Victor Hennebert (1877-1947), a well-known photojournalist who introduced her to Belgian’s artistic scene. Like her contemporary Nancy Cunard, Walschot was notorious for wearing African jewelry and pendants, and her feminine eccentricity. Like Helena Rubinstein much later, she would frequently pose in close contact with the objects in her collection, establishing her identity as avant-garde art collector in a scene mostly dominated by man. The Belgian photographer Germaine Van Parys documented Walschot’s collection. Van Parys was the first female professional press photographer in Belgium and the two women developed a strong friendship that sprang from their many similarities – traits such as their strong characters and the pioneering roles they played in their respective professional environment. Between 1929 and 1932, Van Parys took numerous pictures of the different rooms in Walschot’s home, all saturated with objects. In less than ten years, Walschot’s collection had completely taken over her living space and the walls displayed a panoply of objects. Indeed, Walschot was merely a dealer to pay for her collecting activities. In 1934 Van Parys would document one of the first African art exhibitions to be dedicated to a single owner collection: 1,000 Art Nègre objects form the Mlle. Walschot collection will transport you to the amazing world of the Black Africans (in French 1,000 objets nègres de la collection de Mlle Walschot vous transporteront dans le monde merveilleux des Noir), which ran from December, 23, 1933, through January 7, 1934, at the Cercle Artistique et Littérature in the Théâtre Royal du Parc in Brussels. One installation view by Van Parys features the present kifwebe mask mounted on a wall, next to second Songye mask, and a shield. The 1933 exhibition would remain the only exhibition exclusively devoted to her private collection. Many of the featured objects would later up in different important public and private collections. With 1,000 objects of view it was a testament of her all-engulfing passion for the Arts. After her death, the remaining 3,000 objects would be bequeathed to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren.
Alain Schoffel began collecting when he was 10 years old. His first love was ancient stone arrow heads. His father took him around to the antique shops in Paris as a youth, and at the same time he began a personal self-discovery of his Jewish heritage. This same journey was inextricably linked to his thirst for knowledge of world cultures, which he quenched in their relics – the art. A self-made man, at the ripe old age of 14, he was in severe negotiations with the inimitable Parisian dealer and specialist of African art, Hélène Leloup (then Kamer), wishing to partially pay and partially trade from his collection in order to make new acquisitions. He was intrigued by the Surrealists. At age 19, he invited himself to visit the collection of André Breton. And why not? Breton said, ‘Yes’. Fortune favors the bold. The art of Africa – the art of the Pacific – he has an innate ability and the benefit of years of honing his sense for quality and inner beauty. He carried this gift into some of his most daring approaches into the art of Indonesia and the Philippines; he, almost solely, blazed a trail to understanding the art of these cultures. He went on to acquire the icon of Indonesian art – the Nias figure, which also, by the way, once belonged to Breton, now central in the Louvre’s collection at the Pavillon des Sessions – a temple to art of other times and cultures. His Uli figure from New Ireland also now lives in the Louvre. Despite these daring accomplishments in collecting, Schoffel exists without ostentation - content to be fed by art – albeit to an epic level – as an enduring source of knowledge and understanding.