The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will bring to life the timeless sights and sounds of Africa’s vast Congo region in Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa, opening November 10th and running through February 24th.
This collection of Congolese art features more than 130 rare and unique masks dating from the 17th to 20th centuries, with more than a dozen masks showcased in their complete ceremonial ensembles. The works of art in the exhibition represent not only the artisans and performers who created these masks and brought them to life, but also the various communities, belief systems and natural resources involved in their creation.
The exhibition is curated by the legendary Marc Leo Felix, founder and director of the Congo Basin Art History Research Center in Brussels, Belgium. Over the past five decades, he has amassed one of the finest private collections of rare and important Congolese masks in the world.
A world-renowned art historian, linguist, curator and collector, Marc Leo Felix has conducted extensive field research across the Congo Basin since the 1960s and authored dozens of books and articles on the ritual arts of Central Africa. With Congo Masks, many renowned objects from his and other important collections will be on display for the first time in the United States, with some examples in the exhibition being among the only known and finest in existence.
The exhibition provides a rich setting with original 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. The vast majority of masks are used to dance to music that is performed by visible and invisible instruments, some of which are secret and sacred.
“We are thrilled to share Marc Leo Felix’s world-class collection of masks from the Congo region, along with other important examples from private collections, with our visitors,” says Alex Nyerges, VMFA director. “I was fortunate to see Marc’s collection on display in China and knew that it presented a wonderful opportunity for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to continue to ‘bring the world to Virginia’ by highlighting the artistry and beauty of these traditional masks.”
The masks in this exhibition represent the creative expression of more than 40 different Congolese cultural groups. The masks’ face coverings are made of carved wood, fiber, resin, hide, or metal. Body coverings are constructed from knitted fiber, hide, bark, leaves, grasses, and feathers. Depicting humans, animals, spirits, and combinations of the three, masks are active instruments in spiritual ceremony and storytelling.
Some more recent masks even depict figures such as Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley. The inclusion of these masks is designed to challenge pre-existing assumptions about African masks.
Tickets for the exhibition are now on sale. The exhibition is free for VMFA members, children ages 6 and under, state employees and teachers, as well as active-duty military personnel and their immediate families; $16 for adults; $12 for seniors 65+; and $10 for youth 7–17 and college students with ID.