Cosmic Connections

Helmet Mask, Tetela or Songye, Democratic Republic of Congo, early 20th century; National Museum of African Art collection

Post, Tsogo or Sango, Gabon, early-mid 20th century; National Museum of African Art collection

Top, Helmet Mask, Tetela or Songye, Democratic Republic of Congo, early 20th century

Domains of sky and earth, nature and culture are conceptualized in this mask, which was used for the dance of the new moon and for funerals and other occasions.  It was collected in 1924 by John Noble White, who was with the Methodist Mission at Minga in Shaba province.  His field photograph of the masquerade in performance documented that vulture and guinea fowl feathers originally protruded from the crest.  The costume included a fiber ruff (still attached to the mask), as well as a fiber skirt and a leopard skin.  These elements – feathers, fiber and skin – emphasized the wilderness and may well have reflected local emblems of power.

Bottom, Post, Tsogo or Sango, Gabon, early-mid 20th century

A crescent moon, located above a female figure, adorns the upper portion of this wooden post carved by a Tsogo or Sango artist from Gabon.  It would have been paired with a male counterpart, a similarly-carved post ornamented with a male figure and a low-relief sun carved above it.

Such figurative posts were erected for the cult houses of the Bwiti (or Bwete) society, particularly in the contexts of initiation and mortuary rituals.  The female post would have been positioned to the left of the entrance, the male post to the right. The male-female pair may well have served to reinforce the notion of community – emphasizing the creation of family, the completion of initiation rites, and the ongoing remembrances of those who have passed away.

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