Date: 19th–20th century
Geography: Gabon or Republic of Congo, Ivindo or Sangha River region
Culture: Kwele peoples
Medium: Wood, pigment, kaolin
Dimensions: H. 20 3/4 x W. 15 x D. 4 in. (52.7 x 38.1 x 10.2 cm)
Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number: 1979.206.8
Animal masks, known as ekuk, are used during ceremonies of the beete cult, a social association among the Kwele peoples. This bata or ram mask is distinguished by the curving horns that gently frame the face. The mask is relatively flat, with slight changes in plane clearly delineated by variations in color. The face, simplified to a heart-shaped form in the center of the mask, is highlighted in white. This delicate depiction of the face is a common feature in masks of the Kwele and other related ethnic groups in the surrounding equatorial forest region. The diverse repertoire of ekuk masks from beete ceremonies includes representations of the ram (bata) as seen here, the fierce gorilla (gon), and the swallow, among others.
The Kwele are a Bantu-speaking people who live in the rain forests of western equatorial Africa (present-day Republic of Congo and Gabon). In principle, the regulation of village affairs was dependent upon the consensus of the heads of the resident lineages. In practice, consensus was rarely reached, and villages tended to fracture often. During the middle of the nineteenth century, a smallpox epidemic ravaged the area. The Kwele survived by obtaining a powerful "medicine" known as beete from neighboring peoples. Medicine here implies a complex ritual procedure that involves family relics, the visitation of nature spirits represented in masks, expiation and purification rites, and much more. The apparent success of beete in remedying this crisis, but also more importantly in combating the social fragmentation of the village and creating a sense of harmony and cooperation, led to its continued performance and elaboration by the Kwele.
Most ekuk, which roughly translates as "things of the forest," feature prominent animal attributes while also maintaining an anthropomorphic face. The masks are considered representations of both important forest spirits and "children of beete." While the extensive preparations for beete ceremonies are in progress, multiple masks appear to prime the audience and create a spiritually "hot" atmosphere. The masks are used in morning and afternoon sessions to lead the villagers in dancing, enlivening the occasion with their beauty, movements, and suggestions of power. The beete ritual cycle includes the initiation of youths into the secret knowledge of the association; these candidates are introduced to the skulls of important past leaders as well as to masks of the beete.