Kwele Selections

Click Selection for Details


Kwele Information

Location: Gabon
Neighboring Peoples: Fang, Mahongwe, Kota
Types of Art: According to Siroto (1979 and 1995), there are three main types of Kwele mask: 1 - Bush spirit masks, ekuk, which are divided into white-faced masks that function as guardian spirits and animal masks, kuk-guu (a flying squirrel or spiny-tailed squirrel) and kuk-diityak (an owl, also known as a "witch's chicken"); 2 - Gong masks, which resemble male gorillas; 3 - Helmet masks with multiple faces, Ngontangang. Fig. 13: Mask with Encircling Horns. This author believes that the round masks with human faces whitened with kaolin are not ancestor masks as they are generally called, but are instead representations of bush spirits, which act as intermediaries between the world of the bush and that of the village. White coloring on other masks from Equatorial Africa is associated with death, but for the Kwele it symbolizes light and clarity, and hence the clairvoyance needed to combat witchcraft. The symbolic ambivalence of white coloring is found elsewhere: a white mask from the Ogooué region represents a spirit with special clairvoyant powers, which returns to the village from the realm of the dead through the supernatural world of the forest (ngontang and ngil masks, for example). There is therefore no symbolic incompatibility between bush spirit masks and ancestor spirit masks, since the latter can assume the appearance of the former. This convergence is realized in masks that combine zoomorphic and anthropomorphic elements. Some masks seem to be male (the animal masks) while others are more female (the round masks), but only the former were used in solo dances. It also appears that the houses used for the beete cult or initiation rites, even if they were temporary structures built specially for the festivities, were hung with unactivated masks, which resembled the others but had no eyeholes and therefore did not develop the patina that comes from being worn. Even discounting these little-handled examples, it has been observed by various commentators that few Kwele masks are really ancient (i.e., earlier than 1920). Most of the pieces known today were collected between 1920 and 1935, a period when Kwele carvers were still at the height of their technical and artistic powers. Such artists could respond quickly, and sometimes well, to the demand from European travellers interested in African objects. There is little doubt that a number of Kwele objects in Western collections were not made for ritual use in the nineteenth century. Ingeborg Bolz (1966), in a study of Gabonese sculpture, cast serious doubts on the strictly ethnographic authenticity of many Kwele masks. Without being so severe, it should be recognized that some recently made objects were used for entertainment outside a traditional ritual context, or were even commissioned by Europeans.
Religion: In the context of the civilizations of the Ogooué basin (which include the Fang, Kota, Tsogo, etc.) and assuming reasonable contact with these peoples, it is difficult to believe that the Kwele would not similarly have venerated ancestors and kept the relics of the dead of the lineage. Indeed, each lineage kept the skulls (edim) of important deceased members of the group in baskets, a practice similar to that of the Kota and the Mahongwe from Mékambo. These reliquary baskets were apparently decorated with "carved wooden heads" and were placed in the living hut behind the bed of the head of the family (Deschamps, 1962). In this proximity the ancestors could advise the head of the family in his dreams and reveal the future. The "Mademoiselle"* cult, an iconoclastic movement in the 1950s led by an inspired Kwele prophet from the Souanké region, encouraged the destruction of all ancient ritual objects likely to be used for witchcraft throughout the Ogooué-Ivindo regions and northern Gabon. Why Kwele reliquary figurines were not collected before the advent of "Madamoiselle" remains a mystery.