Lot 96
  • 96

Vuvi Mask, Gabon

30,000 - 50,000 USD
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  • wood
  • Height: 12 1/4 inches (31.1 cm)


Jay C. Leff, Uniontown, Pennsylvania
Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, April 22, 1967, lot 88, consigned by the above
Private Collection, New York, acquired at the above auction


Very good condition for an object of this age and rare type. Marks, nicks, scratches, abrasions, and small chips consistent with age and use. Pin holes around edges from previous attachments. Remains of fiber "bite stick" on reverse, broken and frayed. An old fragmentary red-bordered label on the reverse with "Gabon" and illegible. Crack with a small aperture to proper right top eyelid. Fine aged surface with extensive remains of crusty white kaolin.
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.

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 corpus of extant Vuvi masks is quite small, comprising roughly fifty examples.  For a mask formerly in the Goldet collection which is considered to be the archetype of the style, see Sotheby's, November 11, 2014, lot 90.  The present Vuvi mask, previously in the collection of the important American collector Jay C. Leff, is a fine early example of the type, with large features including dramatic bow-shaped eyebrows and extensive remains of ritually-applied Kaolin.  For further discussion of the corpus see Grand-Dufay (2013: 92-105).