In an age where you can find answers to almost anything with the click of a mouse, it can come as something of a surprise when what might seem like a simple bit of research comes to an abrupt, premature end.
Back in 2004 I came across a strange-looking mask in a South African craft market. It immediately caught my eye and looked very different from the many others on sale. I bought it, packaged it up and brought it home. Before I’d even unpacked my bag my research began. I knew it wasn’t an original, but was curious to find out more about the people who might have made these decades or centuries earlier. These people, it turned out, were the Kwele of Equatorial Africa.
“With their slit eyes that elegantly curve to the temples, Kwele masks are readily identifiable. Looking at the subtly refined forms, the mild concave shapes, and especially the graceful heart-shaped face, one might be tempted to assume it to be a classic form of African sculpture. Strangely, this is not so, although art enthusiasts and specialists have admired these works for decades”
Art of the Kwele of Equatorial Africa (Louis Perrois)
Ironically, the search for my replica mask lead me to an auction which had an authentic piece for sale. Although unable to compete with hardened collectors, I had two things in my favour. Firstly, the piece was about as far from ‘museum quality’ as you could get, and secondly very little was known about where it was originally collected from and when. These two criteria are often high on the priority list for professional collectors. Few were interested, giving me a chance to snap it up.
The mask is incredible because of its condition – eaten away by the ravages of time, chewed at by insects, damaged during ceremonial use. Driven by curiosity, what I’ve managed to find out about the mask is this. It was most likely collected by Swedish traveller (and prolific African art collector) Jan Olof Ollers in the late 1930’s. Some reports say he may have been a missionary. He travelled widely and built his collection over a thirty-five year period, but then sold a large part of it – over 1,000 pieces – at a Sotheby’s London auction in 1973 before emigrating to Canada. For some reason he kept hold of the Kwele mask, possibly because of its ‘poor’ condition, or maybe because it was one of his favourites. Jan Ollers died in Toronto in 2001, and with him many of the answers I’ve been seeking today.
Much about the mask remains a mystery. Where was it collected? When? Did Jan Ollers collect it? If not, who did? What would it have been used for? What kind of mask is it? Although listed as an owl mask, other owl masks that I’ve found are round, and don’t have the large ‘wings’ (or are they ears?) that this one does. I do know that a number of Kwele ceremonial masks were based on the dreams of their makers, who were visited by forest spirits in their sleep. Was this one of them? If so, what was the dream? What’s the significance of the wings (or ears)?
However much I’d love answers to these questions, my chances look bleak. Maybe it’s best left this way. In a world where we can find answers to almost everything, a little wonder and mystery might be a good thing…