The vast area of Central Africa ranges from tropical jungle to savannah grasslands. Today it is divided into the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo, Gabon, and Angola. This region is home to the Fang, Kota, Kuba, Luba, Mangbetu, Kongo, and Chokwe
peoples, to name only a few.
The more accessible wooded areas are populated by villages in which male societies and masking groups played an important role. Masking is part of a variety of ceremonies, among them, the initiation of young men and women into the knowledge and responsibilities of adulthood. In the open savannah, vast kingdoms arose and, with them, the regal art connected to prestige and ancestor worship.
For all of the different ethnic groups, belief in the power of ancestor spirits played a central role. It gave rise to sculptures – notably reliquary figures containing bones and other relics of the dead – that served as intermediaries between the material and the spirit world. The reliquary figures of prominent members of society were used as oracles and objects of prayer, so that the power these people had was drawn upon to help the living. Objects known as “power figures” are the prevalent type of art in this area. Many depict the human form, but their essence lies in the power with which they have been ritually infused.
These figures serve as a link to the supernatural and as means of averting – or bringing about – misfortune.
Mask, Gabon Fang, late 19th-century