The ethnic group Kwele is located in all Gabon areas. For Kwele people, it is utterly important to worship deceased relatives. The life of this population centers on initiation rites; they take place in specific periods, in order to bring about the resolution of the life difficulties.
Kwele mask with a long beard
This mask, with its characteristic heart shape, has a design used in many Kwele’s artistic representations. The expression of bliss is highlighted by the white kaolin, which is the border to the heart-shaped design. A long, bushy beard, made of natural filament, embellishes this allegorical mask.
The Kwele are among the Bantu-speaking peoples who live in western equatorial Africa’s rain forest. During the precolonial era, inhabitants of the region adhered to a highly diffuse notion of territoriality. Loose clusters of village settlements composed of lineage groups were easily disrupted by internal antagonisms that led to the founding of new communities. To mitigate social fragmentation, Kwele leaders developed the rite of beete, which dissipated conflict by redirecting attention to ancestral relics owned by specific lineages. Integrated into the rite were dances led by masked performers called ekuk, or “things of the forest.” Most ekuk masks bore prominent animal attributes, including the bata, or ram, mask, which was characterized by horns curved around the face. Other animal features, such as trunks and beaks, inspired Kwele artists to carve elements that project beyond a single pictorial field.
Kwele horned mask
Kwele masks are distinguished by their simplicity, in a concentrated and analytical expression. They represent the benevolent spirits of the forest, or a combination of people and animals. In this case, the artist combined a man and an antelope. This artwork, like many other ones, has slit eyes. White kaolin, mixed with earth, is due to the Kwele’s belief in the connection of these materials to the concepts of light and clarity.
There are 3 main types of Kwele masks: bush spirit masks (ekuk); masks which resemble male gorillas (gong); helmet masks with multiple faces (ngontangang). White coloring on other masks from Equatorial Africa is associated with death, but for the Kwele it symbolizes light and clarity, and hence the clairvoyance needed to combat witchcraft. Although Kwele fashioned objects in iron, it is above all through their sculptures, masks and anthropomorphic/zoomorphic statuettes that they gained their fame. Their masks are recognized by their great simplicity, in a concentrated and analytical expression.