Lot 108
  • 108

Kwele Mask, Sangha Region, Republic of the Congo

80,000 - 120,000 USD
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  • wood
  • Height: 15 1/8 in (38.5 cm)


Mr. Humbert, Belgium, reportedly collected in situ between 1925 - 1929
Thence by family descent
Pierre Loos, Brussels, acquired from the above
Bernard Dulon, Paris, acquired from the above
Sotheby's, Paris, December 5, 2003, lot 143, consigned by the above
Private Collection, acquired at the above auction


Very good condition overall. Nicks, chips, scratches, and abrasions throughout. Couple of hairline cracks to the back of the chin. Proper right most vertical element is broken and glued, partially visible in the catalogue illustration. Repair partially visible through the proper lower right eye. A few insect flight holes. Varied patina with original red, white, and black pigments. On the back inscribed in pencil "HUMBERT". Has stand.
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

The 'Humbert' Kwele Mask, Sangha Region, Republic of the Congo
Louis Perrois

Kwele masks from the Sangha region, just north of the Congo, with 'W' shaped crests are rare. The best known example was collected before 1930 by Alexandre Petit-Renaud, a rubber prospector for the Trechot Company. That mask, which is 63cm [24 ¾ in] tall, was given to the Muséum d'Histoire naturelle, La Rochelle, in 1935, and is often reproduced. However, there are two other notable examples; see Perrois, 'L'art des Bakwélé d'Afrique équatoriale. Masques d'ancêstres, masques d'esprits de la grande forêt', Tribal Arts, Spring 2001, pp. 92-92, and Ader-Picard-Tajan, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, December 11, 1972, lot 174.

These masks are sub-styles within the corpus of Kwele masks with stylized human faces surmounted by long horns, and another type with large openwork arching horns. Each of these masks - carved from a lightweight wood and most with no developed patina - were emblems of the beete initiation society. This society was composed of high-ranking men and warriors whose rites mobilized the magic forces of the community in order to solve crises, entreat danger or support the social structure of the village. Possession of these masks was very significant to the process of gaining socio-political power. The masks were preserved in a small meeting house used by the beete for initiation ceremonies, but never really worn. Only a few masks - pipibudze and gong - were ever actually danced in ceremonies. The masks symbolically evoke a shared guardian ancestor, represented by a stylized face with a 'heart-shaped' facial plane, bleached kaolin surface, and large almond-shaped eyes that are meant to imply a severe and enigmatic glance, and often a small curved mouth. The mask also evokes the forest spirit kuk, represented by the animistic horns and simian face, further reinforcing the power of the mask.

The crest of long sinuous horns, often described as 'W' shaped horns, suggest the shape of the horns of the bongo antelope (Tragelaphus eurycerus), a powerful animal from the equatorial forest, formerly abundant in the area.

The 'Humbert' mask discussed here is rather small (height 38.5 cm [15 ⅛ in]) and is carved in a characteristic 'faceted' manner. This trait is shared with the famous mask in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (acc. no. 1979.206.8; ibid., p. 88), and the fine polychrome mask in the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris (inv. no. 71.1936.18.15; height 46 cm [18 ⅛ in]; ibid., p. 85), which is very similar in spite of the difference in the horns.

The structure of the face of these three works all point to a common stylistic type, with the lozenge-shaped face formed with a subtle interlacing of curves and right angles emphasizing the scooped out 'heart-shaped' facial plane, accented by the use of black pigment from burnt wood, red pigment from seeds, and white kaolin, further highlighted by the incorporation of several miniature faces placed at the top of the horns.

The elongation of the horns, which in the 'Humbert' mask are treated in a rather rigid and unusual way, seems to correspond to the sculptor's intention to reinforce the magic power of the mask. It also highlights the visual power of the work, since the mask's function was to frighten sorcerers and followers of the occult. Finally the sculptor also intended to reinforce the mask's power of clairvoyant divination, the use of white kaolin being symbolic of the mythic entity's gift of divination, further accentuated by the multiple small secondary faces and isolated eyes.

Considering the period when the 'Humbert' mask was collected, the perfect state of conservation (except for a minor repair at the right side of the crest), the relatively heavy wood, and the yellowish surface, it appears that this mask was made around 1925-1930. At that time some fine Kwele artists were still active on behalf of the older initiates of the beete society. According to Leon Siroto, who conducted field research among the Kwele in 1960, most known Kwele masks can be dated to the 'colonial' period, between 1920-1935, with the exception of ten works which arrived in Europe before 1914 (Leon Siroto, East of the Atlantic, West of the Congo, 1995, pp. 20-21).