Congo River

Arts of Central Africa


This work highlights the relations which link the artistic production of the people of Central Africa (mainly Gabon, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo). From the forests located to the north of the Congo River to the savannahs of the south, the exhibition itinerary underlines the artistic links that exist between the works produced by the regions' diverse communities. These possess distinct cultures and traditions despite the fact that they share the Bantu language. Beyond the differences between the Fang, Hemba, Kwélé or Kota, there are however certain stylistic and functional similarities that make it possible to better understand the masterpieces of Central Africa.

Two large biotopes are spread out on both sides of the Congo River that serves as a border and also as a link between diverse societies that live on both sides of its banks. The diversity of the productions in these two biotopes comes within the scope of a remarkable unity that involves both the peoples' institutions and their artistic productions. Thus, for example, the Kota reliquaries, visible to the north of Gabon, gradually become more convex and ornate in the south. The same trend occurs with the Punu masks – the famous “white masks” – that become more realistic as they approach the Kongo Kingdom's sphere of influence. To the east, Bembe sculpture offers the same mutations, inspired on the one hand by the arts of the forest cultures, particularly the Lega culture, and, on the other hand, by the developing realistic statuary reminiscent of the populations of subequatorial savannah.

The book highlights our world heritage, so often categorized into ethnic groups separated by colonial borders.

The three selected themes are presented in the form of an initiatory path underlining the emergence and development of these astonishing and world famous cultural signs:

  • The heart-shaped face, present in the masks and effigies from the equatorial forest, from the Kwele to the Lega.
  • The reliquaries and ancestral figures, cutting across both the forest/savannah biotopes, of the Mbede, Fang, Tsogho, Kota, Ngbaka, Teke, Kongo, Songye, Kusu, Hemba, Boyo-Bembe and Tabwa.
  • Feminine representations, venerated in the kingdoms of the savannah: Punu masks, Kongo maternity figures; masks and effigies from the Kwango-Kwilu region (Holo, Yaka, Suku, Mbala, Pende), the Chokwe, Luluwa and Luba.


400 pages • 29,7 x 24,5 cm • 60 €
Co-published by musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac - Fonds Mercator 2010
ISBN: 9789061539148