Congolese Culture - Sculpture and Masks

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Sculpture and Masks

Congo, like most African countries, is known for its ancient sculptures and masks which can be seen in museums all over the world. The variety of art styles and the abundance of its production make Congo a center of exceptional artistic riches and one of the most remarkable in Black Africa in terms of traditional arts. The influence of Congolese sculpture on modern art and the cubism movement has been well documented. Pottery, basketry, textiles like raffia and wood carving are also part of main handicrafts of Congo. There are at least fifty different styles of sculpture, related to the tribes. They bear the name of the tribe where they were developed and where they were kept. The main ones are Kongo, Teke, Holo, Suku, Pende, Mbala, Ngbandi, Ngbaka, Azande, Mangbetu, Mongo, Mbole, Lengola, Kuba, Luba, Songye, Lega, Bembe, Hemba, Tshokwe. There are many other tribes that produce unique works of equal value. Wood is the most used material, then come ivory, bone, plant fiber, metal: stone. The cowry shells, beads, feathers, animal skins, kaolin and vegetable colors complement and decorate numerous works. It is important to note that traditional art is essentially functional. Many objects that reflect aesthetic is purely utilitarian. Modern art is also finding its mark in Congo, with self-taught and graduates of Fine Art Schools. Painting is another area where Congolese artists excel in, with renowned painters like Chéri Samba, Maludi Solo, Mongita Lokele and many others.


Songye mask

Luba mask

Teke mask

Mangbetu Harp

Pende mask

Kuba mask

Tshokwe chair

Congolese painting

Copper Bracelet Congolese statue

The impact of Congolese Masks on Picasso

Picasso came in contact with the work of African artists at around 1905. This new form of art stimulated a great interest in him since it was different from what he was exposed to in the West. He was particularly fascinated with African Masks. After the great discovery he wrote:

"I have experienced my greatest artistic emotions, when I suddenly discovered the sublime beauty of sculptures executed by the anonymous artists from Africa. These passionate and rigorously logical religious works are what the human imagination has produced as most potent and most beautiful..."
At that moment, I realized what painting was all about!

Picasso was above all taken by the elements and principles of design applied on the masks in addition to the emotions that they transmitted. Captured by the power of these new forms, he begins to apply them into the preliminary sketches for Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon, from which originated Modern Art and the Cubist Movement.

The mask worn by the woman in the bottom right corner of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is based on the Mbuya (sickness) Mask, created by the Pende of the D.R Congo, as revealed by art experts. It is noticeable that Picasso painted an unadulterated reflexion of this mask. All facial distortions and expressions created by the Congolese artist have been retained and faithfully reproduced. Interestingly, facial distortions and emotional expressions are what constitute the quintessential elements in both Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the Mbuya Mask.

Mbuya (sickness) Mask.
Pende, Dem. Rep. of Congo

Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon
Pablo Picasso, 1907