Congo Masks

Masterpieces from Central Africa at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Hood Mask and Costume, Kete culture (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Photos by Paul Louis & David Stover / courtesy of VMFA

The state’s flagship fine arts museum now offers guests an exotic experience through its newest exhibition, Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa, on view through Feb. 24.

The only public Congo masks exhibition in America, the display features a diverse array of more than 130 intricate masks designed by African artisans from the 17th to 20th centuries. The 11 styles of masks in the collection are performance objects that vary in original function; some masks were used in ceremonial worship, some in entertainment rituals.

Star-Patterned Face Mask, Ndaaka culture (Democratic Republic of the Congo), wood, fiber, pigment.

“The level of detail and care that went into creating every one of these masks is incredible,” says VMFA director Alex Nyerges. 

The exhibition also showcases field photographs and film footage of the masks being worn and performed in ceremonies or rituals, as well as audio recordings and a selection of Congolese musical instruments.

In contemporary terms, it is no longer possible to consider the art and history of the Congo without also thinking of its inextricably complex, colonial history under Belgium and other European entities—Congo became an independent republic in 1960.

“I hope that through this exhibition, Virginians will take away a deeper understanding of the Congolese and Central African culture and see these masks for the marvelous pieces of art that they are,” says Nyerges.

This article originally appeared in our February 2019 issue.

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