West-Central Africa is populated largely by speakers of the Bantu languages. These languages originated in a small population of iron-smelting farmers in what is now Nigeria but had, by the 8th century CE, spread to Zanzibar, off the coast of East Africa and southward into the heart of Central Africa. Bantu-speakers now dominate virtually the entire southern half of the African continent and have, through the Atlantic slave trade, significantly influenced the music, language, and religion of the Americas as well.
Nineteenth-century West-Central Africans tended to believe in a high god, known by some cognate of the term KiKongo term “Nzambi Mpungu,” as well as a range of otherworldly ancestors, geographical features, and spirits whose vital force materially affected human life. West-Central Africans produced hundreds of forms of masks to give visible, social presence to these beings. Historically, such masks were often danced during rites of passage and called upon in judicial procedures. West-Central Africa is most famous for the high arts of ancestor-worship, including statues commemorating dead rulers, sculptures for the adornment of reliquary bags and vessels, and anthropomorphic figurines and bags that, through ritually prepared human bone fragments, animal parts, and herbs, mobilize the power of the dead in the service of living ritual experts and their clients.
The sources of the West-Central African ritual objects in the CAAAR collection include Gabon, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. Among their ethnic origins are Kongo, Suku, Mangbetu, Yaka, Songye, Kuba, Koto, Beembe, Fang and Punu. Some West-Central African sacred art is deeply influenced by the coastal intercultural dialogue between Europeans and Africans, such as the missionization of the Kongo Kingdom in the 15th century. Scholars debate whether the naturalism of Kongo statuary is an imitation of European representational forms, but most agree that the cross was an important West-Central African symbol of the intersection between the worlds of the living and the dead long before Christianity arrived. And many agree that a hybrid African and Christian understanding of the cross arrived with the African captives in the Americas and contributed to the iconography of Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, and Black North American sacred practices. West-Central Africans were the plurality of captives taken to the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, French and Belgian missionaries and colonial officials took home large quantities of this sacred art, which entered the family collections and state museums. Ever since Picasso identified West and West-Central African as a source of representational forms for the renewal of the Western artistic tradition, the reliquary figures of the Fang (in what is now Gabon) and the Minkisi (or power objects) of the BaKongo and the BaSongye have been particularly sought after by European art collectors, who often display such African sacred art alongside the European “modern” art that such African pieces inspired. Paris and Brussels have become the capitals of the commerce in and the collection of African sacred objects.
Hence, art that was once part of African sacred worlds--worlds now deeply transformed by Christianity and often deeply hostile toward indigenously African religions--has been integrated into a modern European sacred world. Even objects of non-religious use in Africa, such as Kuba tableware and raffia currency cloths—often produced specifically for the export market to Europe--have been swept up in the European sacralization of things African. For Europeans, these African objects have become embodiments of the shared human past, of the dignity of European families’ working-class ancestors who once upon a time prospered through the appropriation of African resources, and of Europe’s salvation from its own cultural exhaustion and spiritual discontent.