VMFA Exhibit of Congo Masks: Masterpieces From Central Africa

And so, the day begins with me standing in the middle of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, right next to the legendary Marc Leo Felix. Felix, a jovial man who wears a blue leather suit with matching blue leather hat and shoes, is the director of the Congo Basin Art History Research Center as well as the curator of the exhibit that I am here to see, Congo Masks: Masterpieces From Central Africa. Felix has been collecting the rare and beautiful masks from the Congo region since the 1960’s. And today, over 130 of them are on display.

Before the viewing begins, Felix makes a bold statement.

“We are fortunate that in this exhibit, you will see at least 20 pieces that can be qualified as a real masterpiece because they are the best of their kind anywhere in the world.”

And while to me, all of the masks appear to showcase artistic perfection, there is one in particular that immediately stands out – a beautiful, red and white wooden mask, adorned with a feather collar. This particular piece sits within a glass encasing at the end of the room. Created sometime during the 1950’s by a member of the Nyindu people, who lived among the forests of southern Umaniema, the mask displays the typical wide-open, toothed mouth and rooster-feather collar. But the collar of this mask was still in near pristine condition, and the mouth was so expertly carved that it appeared to have breath. I was stunned. 

“Many of these masks had magic,” said Felix. “The magic that came from their ancestors is what they used to create the masks and then use them when they needed.”

The masks were often needed. Carved by a tribes most elite members, the masks were worn during times of celebration, war, sadness and prayer. The creators of the masks were highly honored and revered, and the masks were said to be magical and enchanting.

This mask, like many others, still appeared to have the magic of the ancestors within them. Adorned with pigments, feathers, furs-skins and cowry shells, the masks were carved into wood and served as the most elaborate form of expression.

The VMFA’s brilliant display assisted with their visuals by perfectly illuminating the concavity versus the convexities of each mask, thus highlighting their craftsmanship. Assisting with the narrative were costumes, musical instruments and rare footage of tribal rituals that showed the masks at work. The entire exhibition was breathtaking.  

The exhibit is free for VMFA members, children ages 6 and under, state employees and teachers, as well as active-duty military personnel and their immediate families; $16 for adults; $12 for seniors 65+; and $10 for youth 7-17 and college students with ID.

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