Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lele or Bashilele, ca. early 20th century CE. A finely carved wooden mask with an expressive visage and a magnificent headdress. Note that Lele or Bashilele masks are commonly associated with Kuba styles; however, they are much rarer and present a relatively flattened shape with keloids, scarification lines, tukula powder, and dramatically arched eyebrows as depicted in this example. The headdress above this visage is extensively decorated with bands of a cowrie shells arranged in flower petal designs, colorful glass trade beads in red, white, green, and black hues, and vertical rows of cowrie shells bordering both sides of the forehead, all over Kuba cloth with palm leaves and quills protruding from the top. Lele masks have traditionally been danced during the annual founding or creation ceremonies as well as during the burial rites of chiefs. This is a very fine example from the Lele, a little known culture whose visual culture is generally lumped with the Kuba, since it is somewhat similar in style; however, the masks are distinctly flatter in appearance and quite rare, especially with original attached ornamentation like this one. Size: 7" W x 15" H (17.8 cm x 38.1 cm); 18.5" H (47 cm) on included custom stand.
The Lele sculptor of this fine mask demonstrated exceptional skill and an imaginative employment of carved and incised details - especially those bold arched brows, coffee-bean shaped eyes, dotted keloids over the complexion, and that cross-hatched coiffure fringe over the forehead and framing the temples. What's more, the face is so expressive with those wide-eyes that contrast beautifully with that tiny puckered mouth. According to the curatorial staff of the Brooklyn Museum, masks like this example are traditionally used at funerals of elders and chiefs; however they also appear in annual performances honoring and teaching the history of Lele origins and migrations.
Similar examples may be found in elite museum collections. Follow this link for a beautiful Lele mask at the Brooklyn Museum cf. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/4855; and this link for an example at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art https://africa.si.edu/collections/view/objects/asitem/6522/34/invno-desc?t:state:flow=3e60e710-1d94-47f8-bb0d-b054bf72c925.
cf. "100 Peoples of Zaire and Their Sculpture" by Marc Leo Felix (1987), figures 10 and 11; cf. "Selected Works from the National Museum of African Art," Smithsonian (1999), figure #2; cf. "A Survey of Zairian Art, The Bronson Collection," by Joseph Cornet (1978), figure 126; "Face of the Spirits Masks from the Zaire Basin," by Frank Herreman & Constantijn Perridis (1998), figure 57; and cf. Bonhams, New York, November 14, 2013, #216.
Provenance: ex-private Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA collection
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