France's first major exhibition devoted to the art of Angola is a reminder, if any were needed, that Africa has produced some of the greatest sculptors of all time, even if we will never know their names.
The show at Paris’s the Musée Dapper displays “figures of authority”, which are mostly masks but also include statuettes and other objects originally imbued with magical and/or religious power. They exalted the political and spiritual power of tribal leaders and transmitted it from one generation to the next.
In all, there are 140 objects with a stunning diversity of forms and composition.
Mediators between the living world and the supernatural, the masks are intended for dancers who give them life and speech. But the faces have lost a "body" of leaves and fibre whose rustling accompanied their movements.
“What we would call the costume for the mask, they would call the body of the ancestor,” explains Manuel Jordan, anthropologist and art historian. “The mask is the head of the ancestor. It’s only supposed to appear as a unity, representing a character as a full being that is being articulated through dance and performance.”
The Chokwe are the most artistically prolific ethnic group in Angola.
They were not actually colonised until the 1930s and are now divided between southern Zaire, north-eastern Angola, and north-western Zambia. Many Chokwe traditions have survived. Masks representing ideal young female beauty, Mwano Pwo, still dance alongside male counterparts, Tchihongo, during initiation ceremonies.
“The idea is that when one of the kids sees it they will be scared but eventually they will learn that this is a very positive role model,” says Manuel Jordan, an expert in Chokwe art who contributed to the exhibition catalogue.
“You have a male and a female role model and the way they teach is that they actually dance. They perform the masquerades publicly and the community sees certain morals and ideals of what human beings should be like.”
But for all their spiritual significance, the masks can simply be admired as great works of art, he adds.
Western museums, for example, are full of ancient, mediaeval and renaissance art we don’t fully understand.
“There is a tendency towards always portraying African art in terms of magic and religion, power and spiritual essence. All that is absolutely true but these objects are first and foremost aesthetic objects, works of art created by some of the most extraordinary sculptors and artists who make their own aesthetic decisions.
“The Chokwe, in particular, like to depict big, big hands with splayed fingers and large feet, much larger than the proportions of the body. If you look at the way masquerades are danced you’ll see that legs are flexed, feet planted firmly on the ground with hands very expressively projecting out – so all of that is frozen into the aesthetic form of a sculpture."
The second part of the exhibition is devoted to the peoples of northern Angola – Wovo, Vili, Yombe.
Their sculptors have little in common with the Chokwe. Their works are meant to help in exorcism, healing or divination. They have compartments hollowed out in the wood and closed by a mirror that they believe are filled with magic.
The museum has devoted one of its rooms to work António Ole, one of Angola's best-known contemporary artists.
A painter, filmmaker and photographer, Ole has created a vast body of work that focuses on the human will to resist and survive.
In the case of Angola, that has meant overcoming colonisation, the slave trade, famine and war.
Exterminating Angel is a work from the vast installation, exploring the country’s decades-long civil war, which he created in the capital city, Luanda.
“These are only pieces of scrap metal out of which I created something mechanical, a machine of war," said Ole. "The angel’s gun is already rusted. I found it and wanted to arm the angel with it. I didn’t want a voice or head like a human being.”