Small Songye mask

Songye mask

Materials: carved wood, paint
Dimensions: 11 centimeters high
Place acquired: street stall, Portobello Road, London
Place of manufacture: Democratic Republic of Congo

This little mask comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s the place where civil war still rages and the ‘dirty diamonds’ come from. It used to be called Zaire under the dictator Mubuto, and before that, proxy wars were fought with American and Soviet backing. Before that it was a colony called the Belgian Congo, and before that, around the turn of the 20th century, it was the personal property of king Leopold of Belgium and was called the Congo Free State. It’s where plantation slavery and genocide took place and where Joseph Conrad set his dystopic novel Heart of Darkness.

All this should alert us to some of the issues that surround this little object – who made it? why? And how exactly did it end up on a street stall in Portobello Road? The man I bought it from was Congolese, and when I tried to negotiate the price he picked up his mobile and chatted furtively with his own ‘Mr Big’. Maybe I shouldn’t have bought it. Maybe it’s a kind of dirty diamond itself. Clearly there are several stories that it has to tell – cultural, commercial and political.

Its supposed cultural story is the easiest one to get information about. Any number of museum websites, african art auction houses and online sales outlets will talk of the exquisite and highly collectable Songye kifwebe masks. According to these accounts the Songye are a tribal people living in the southeastern part of D.R. Congo. They are farmers and pastoralists, apparently, and they depend on the rituals of the Bwadi Bwa Kifwebe (secret societies who perform with the masks) for crucial ceremonies to do with funerals, marriages and initiations. Small versions of the masks, like this one, are used as amulets or for personal shrines.

Clearly these accounts are based on ethnographic data that was accurate at one time, and maybe still is. But war, poverty, global commerce and Christian evangelism are never mentioned, and the accounts tend to paint a picture of an untouched society still isolated from the modern world. They maintain a fiction that the western collector market seems to need – that of a pristine culture of which these masks are a rare trophy for the connoisseur. It’s difficult to believe that this is the case. If it wasn’t looted, then most probably this little mask was made for sale, artificially aged and fed straight into a commercial chain that ended up at Portobello market.

Whatever its history, it is still a beautiful object, but one whose true story tells us about a modern world of commerce, and of global conflict. It’s the world that we all live in, including the Songye people of the Congo, and of course the Western collectors of african art, whether they realise it or not.