Lot 90
  • 90

Vuvi Mask, Gabon

200,000 - 300,000 USD
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • wood, olive baboon hair
  • Height: 13 1/2 in (34.3 cm)


Daniel Hourdé, Paris
Hubert Goldet, Paris, acquired from the above
Ricqlès, Paris, Collection Hubert Goldet, July 1, 2001, lot 277
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired at the above auction


Forte di Belvedere, Florence, La grande scultura dell'Africa Nera, July 15 - October 29, 1989
Musée Dapper, Paris, Le grand héritage: sculptures de l'Afrique noire, May 21 - September 15, 1992
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Treasures, November 17, 2004 - August 15, 2005


Ezio Bassani, La grande scultura dell'Africa Nera, Florence, 1989, pp. 161 and 254, cat. 86
Ezio Bassani, Le grand héritage: sculptures de l'Afrique noire, Paris, 1992, p. 189
Sophie Curtil, Masque Vouvi, Masque Boa, Paris, 1992, cover
Sharon F. Patton, Treasures, Washington, D.C., 2004 (unnumbered portfolio)
Charlotte Grand-Dufay, "Les Vuvi et leurs masques: une culture Gabonaise méconnue," Tribal Art Magazine, Vol. XVII:2, No. 67, Spring 2013, p. 96, fig. 8


Very good condition for an object of this age and rare type. Minor marks, nicks, scratches, abrasions, hairline age cracks, and small chips consistent with age and use. Shallow knot in top. Remains of woven burlap, vegetable fibers, and monkey pelt are dry and fragile with some fraying and small losses. Original binding on reverse is dry with some fraying. Modern drill hole in top edge of reverse from a previous mounting. Exceptionally fine aged glossy dark brown patina with remains of dark stain, brown pigment, and white kaolin. Fine aged surface on reverse. Two paper labels affixed to reverse, one with "277" and the second a lot tag from the Goldet auction printed "Coll. H. Goldet no." and inscribed in ink "277".
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

In the heart of central Gabon, between the Offoué and Lolo Rivers, are the Vuvi, a small and until recently little-known culture.  The Vuvi are primarily known to the outside world for a small corpus of face masks, mostly collected in the 1930s, which are of strikingly clean, graphic, and abstract design.  Within this group, the Kunin Vuvi Mask, formerly in the collection of Hubert Goldet, is well-known as the “icon” of the style (Grand-Dufay 2013: 104), and is undoubtedly the finest example.

The ingenious aesthetics of these masks are especially appealing in their bold graphic purity to what could be called a "modernist" aesthetic.  According to Perrois and Grand-Dufay (2005: 124-125): “The human features are summarized with a few lines on a white oval surface: a double arc superimposed on a triangle becomes the eyebrows, the eyes, and the nose.  The image portrait thus becomes a pictogram, and reality becomes a sign.”

The community life of the Vuvi, like many of their related Gabonese neighbors, was governed by an initiation society and belief system which emphasized the veneration of ancestors, the bwete (or bwiti) society.  Grand-Dufay (2013: 98) notes that the bwete “involves the instruction of young people by experienced adults over a period of six months by the means of ‘a series of lessons on the ethical, religious, and disciplinary principles of the tribe’ [Swiderski 1975: 123], along with physical exercises and moral tests designed to help perpetuate the tradition.  The bwete takes place partly in the ebandza, a ritual temple in the village, and partly in the nzimbe, a place for secret meetings in the forest.  The first compulsory rite of passage, called the bwete disumba, or the classic bwete, consists of the mastication of the grated bark of the roots of the eboga bush (Tabernanthe iboga), called ‘sacred wood’ or ‘bitter wood’, resulting in a temporary alteration of consciousness and hallucination that enables contact with the Great Beyond, with the first ancestors, and with the cosmic triad (Kombe the sun, Ngonde the moon, and Minanga the stars).”

She continues (ibid.: 100): “The public bwete events were spectacular.  The masks would emerge from the obscurity of darkness to the blowing of horns, beating of drums, and the light cast by torch bearers.  Among the Tsogho, as among the Vuvi, the maskers appeared in anthropomorphic disguises, covered with animal hides, foliage, and fabric.  They symbolized the ‘glorious deceased’, the ancestors who had been initiated into the bwete and who now live in [the primordial ancestor] Kombe’s village.”

Defining the style of these masks, Grand-Dufay (ibid.: 103) states: “The Vuvi style is characterized by a combination of elements, including long curved eyebrows, eyes that can be either close to one another or elongated toward the temples, a short triangular nose of conical or rectangular shape, and a mouth that is always open, sometimes displaying teeth.  Together these elements form a heart-shaped face.  […] A similar short, triangular nose is also observed in the carvings of the Kwele and the Tsogho, as are the rounded eyebrows, which are sometimes doubled.  Like certain Fang, Tsogo, and Aduma masks, most Vuvi masks have no ears.  In this they differ from those of the Punu, Tsengi, and Dzebi.  The hair is rendered as a large rounded band to which vegetal adornments are added.”

The Kunin Vuvi Mask is characterized by particularly tall arching eyebrows, a smiling, toothy, inverted-triangular mouth, and a harmonious, balanced overall design, which all contribute to a joyful expression.  It is augmented by the addition of vegetable fibers as well as baboon fur representing hair, and bears an extraordinarily fine patina, with remains of crusty kaolin and a rich reddish brown color to the wood.  These characteristics distinguish the Kunin Vuvi Mask as the archetype and pinnacle of the genre, and one of the finest masks in the entire Gabonese corpus.