When walking into the exhibition Congo Masks and Music: Masterpieces from Central Africa, the viewer should not expect to simply experience art objects alone, but the way of life for Congo peoples that endures today. The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) sheds light on the traditions of the Congo in a way that no exhibition has done before by contextualizing masks alongside musical instruments, performance outfits, photography, and video footage of traditional ceremonies. 

“Congo Masks and Music” at MIM, exhibition view

Visitors can experience more than 150 objects that demonstrate strong values linked to communities performing masquerades within different regions of Congo. Masquerades connect to many aspects of the culture of Congo and can be used to educate, entertain, demonstrate power, promote fertility, and connect humans with the spirit world. Many of these masks represent powerful supernatural beings as well as ancestors who can be depicted in human, animal, or hybridized forms.

Supernatural beings are believed to inhabit the wood, feathers, beads, and metal that make up the masks, and it is the responsibility of the dancers to invoke those spirits. Looking carefully at the masks and materials used may reveal their intentions, such as downcast eyes that represent a trance-like connection to the spirit world. 

Mamboma mask, Woyo Kongo people

There are also cultural stock heroes that have identifiable characteristics, such as the protruding forehead of the water and forest spirit Mashamboy. The aesthetics and artistry of these varied masks is an expression of different worldviews, histories, religious beliefs, and morals, which can be seen in the emphasis or minimization of facial features along with added decorative elements. The masks, along with musical instruments and traditional clothing, play a significant role within these cultural groups and the performance of their masquerades. 

While historical exhibitions of masks from Central Africa have been stagnant in their presentation, the MIM’s inclusion of instruments, clothing, and video footage captures the spirit of masquerade performances in the Congo. An array of instruments are displayed from multiple regions, including drums, bells, rattles, whistles, thumb pianos, xylophones, and harps. Many of these instruments visually reference masks while matching the emotional aura with the sounds they convey. 

Kundi harp, Zande people

One example is the sophisticated design of a harp from the Zande peoples. A deep attention to the craftsmanship, construction, and material quality is emphasized in its aesthetic, which can be seen in the parts of the harp, including its skin-covered resonator, skillfully crafted pegs, and neck topped with a beautifully carved figurative head. An air of elegance is maintained in the presence of this harp’s form that correlates to the tonal sounds produced by its five strings. 

The sounds match the instrument in a similar way that the masks match the spiritual qualities of the supernatural beings they depict. The same can be said for the carefully crafted traditional performance garments that accompany the instruments and masks at these ceremonies. 

Kifwebe mask (male), Songye people

Some of these traditional Congolese objects of the late 1800s and early 1900s are similar to the masks, instruments, and traditional clothing of the cultures today. Masks are still used to tell stories and transform, instruments continue to create deep connections through the feelings of the music produced, and special traditional garments are still used today in many ceremonies to celebrate and retain culture. 

In today’s world of mass-produced and single-use objects, made with low-quality materials and a disconnect between maker and user, these traditional Congolese masquerade objects speak to the value and importance of carefully crafted ritualistic pieces made to last. What makes this an especially cohesive exhibition is the inclusion of video footage of the ceremonies.

“Congo Masks and Music” exhibition view

Through these visual representations, the viewer can fully appreciate the collective use of these objects and the long history of masquerade ceremonies. Viewers may also learn that not only are these gatherings a way to retain the vibrant culture of the different regions in Congo, but they are also uplifting experiences for the individuals and the communities involved.

Congo Masks and Music: Masterpieces from Central Africa

Through September 13

Musical Instrument Museum