A Congolese Commedia dell’Arte



The shadow side. Sculptures from southwestern Congo

At the Quai-Branly-Jacques-Chirac Museum, in Paris

The Italian Renaissance theater was populated by greedy old men and mischievous valets who made the crowds roar with laughter. 19th century Africaand century also had its Harlequins and Polichinelles. The ceremonies punctuating the life of Congolese villages from 1875 to 1950 brought together a cohort of earthy characters with immediately identifiable masks. Alongside the brave hunter or the leader with eyes circled in red signifying clairvoyance, the public delighted to find the “coquette”, finely chiseled features and elaborate finery, or the ” very ugly “, whose pith helmet and prominent teeth mimicked bad European manners!

“It’s a Congolese Commedia dell’Arte. The masks, worn exclusively by men, portray the various actors of society during the enthronement of a chief, harvest-related festivals or initiation rites., recalls the Belgian curator Julien Volper, curator of the ethnographic collections of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, near Brussels, who lent almost all of the 163 exhibits, sometimes for the first time in France. The expressive force of the masks, the splendor of some (elegant buffaloes, serene faces of ancestors) justify the visit of an exhibition whose subject is dispersed over an abundant route.

The masks are thus followed by a light on the wooden statuary, a spotlight on the revolt of the Pende against the colonial authority in 1931, another on the tools, the divinatory instruments or the zoomorphic statues to invoke the geniuses. Referring to dozens of cultures (yaka, tschokwe, mbala…) sometimes misunderstood and scattered over a territory of more than two million square kilometres, these multiple angles would have almost each deserved their own exhibition.

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