- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 16, 2001

The exhibition "In the Presence of Spirits: African Art From the National Museum of Ethnology, Lisbon" comes to Washington with an unmistakable message: Africans made the objects — masks, figures, dolls, stools and chairs, posts and other artifacts — to unite themselves with the supernatural and spirit world.
The recently opened show of choice pieces gathered from former Portuguese colonies in Africa runs through Sept. 16 at the Smithsonian Institutions National Museum of African Art. It displays more than 140 objects dating from about 1850 to the mid-20th century.
The National Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon was a latecomer to the family of European museums of ethnology begun between 1850 and 1920. The Portuguese made plans for their museum only in 1965. They sent buying agents back to their former colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau and dug into private Portuguese collections for the museums opening in 1976.
The Lisbon exhibit and "Treasures From Tervuren: Selections From the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa," shown here in 1997, are both part of the local National Museum of African Arts very fine four-part series of exhibits from African museums in Europe.
"A-Tsol (Shrine Piece and Dance Headdress)" from Guinea gives an idea of the theme of objects in this show. Tsol and tonkongba, other dance headpieces in the exhibit, serve as protectors and connectors.
Both are considered to combat evil, attend to the sick and injured and protect young males during the somewhat difficult initiation ceremonies into manhood.
The Nalu, Baga and Landuma peoples of Guinea, who make tonkongba, believe the headdresses are omniscient fighters of evil: An a-Tsol protects the community, cures the sick and tracks and captures criminals.
The Portuguese were among the earliest Europeans to settle in Africa. Diogo Cao reached the powerful Kongo Kingdom in 1483. By sailing into the opening of the Congo River reached the powerful Kongo Kingdom in 1483. By sailing into the opening of the Congo River from the Atlantic, he initiated trade in spices, gold, ivory, sugar and slaves. He also opened the way for converting African natives to Christianity. Exhibit curator Andrea Nichols has included several evangelical objects in the show.
"There was some reciprocity at the beginning [between the Portuguese and native people], but this disintegrated as the Portuguese became greedier," Miss Nichols says.
She says the Portuguese were just as cruel as the Belgians were in dealing with the areas they settled. Cruelty sometimes begets beauty, as the exhibit "Treasures From Tervuren: Selections From the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa" showed. Still, the Portuguese did not have the likes of Belgian King Leopold, who ordered his farm overseers to cut off African workers hands if they did not produce enough.
The splendid masks dominate the Lisbon show. Masks were utilized in innumerable ways to connect with the spirits. Initiation masks, used in rituals to celebrate male puberty, survive from many of the tribes.
The Nkanu and Zombo peoples, who live in southwestern Congo and northeastern Angola, had many initiation rites. (The many maps in the exhibit help orient the visitor.) They claimed power as descendants of the historic Kongo Empire, and a mask such as the "Mask: Kisokolo or Issogulo" exudes a sense of an important lineage.
It is an intensely expressive image with a nose that curls upward, a whitened face with a black frame and raffia "beard," animal fur and cloth decorations, and "horns." The horns could refer to a dancer expressing joy.
Masks such as these were worn during the closing ceremonies of the initiation, or "nkanda," ritual.
Room 3 of the exhibition holds one of the most impressive displays, a case of six large masks also from the Zombo, Nkanu and Yaka peoples. Several also were used in the initiation ceremonies; others related to the supreme deity Nzambi Mpungu.
Size didnt always equate with power, but it did with the enormous "Mask: Ndzingi" (Cuando Cubango province, Angola). It is a "Ngangela mask" and worn only during initiations.
Visitors can learn from the exhibit label that "Ndzingi" represents a giant from the forest. He lived in the hills and had a mouth big enough to swallow a dog.
The Mbwelka peoples applied pieces of bark cloth over a twig framework of the mask. They painted the mask in the symbolic colors of red-brown ("mukundu") and white ("mphemba"), which represent death and resurrection. The Mbwelka created it in August 1965. Photos, which are exhibited here, were made of each step of the process.
The "giant" then performs and dances with the heavy mask. First he runs aggressively across the stage while swaying his head. Then he twists his pelvis to the side and stamps his feet. The head begins to teeter, and he falls. Unfortunately, the Mbwelka did not photograph the dance.
A work made by the Bidjogo peoples of Guinea Bissau, the "Mask: Egomore," demonstrates their closeness to nature. The different steps of initiation ("fanado") for boys and girls call for a different mask for each age group.
The "Power Figure: Nkisi" from the Yombe peoples of Angola is remarkable for the elaboration of its dress. Pieces of leather and hide swirl around the body, roots wrap around the rib cage, glistening shells form the intense white eyes and a mirror sits on the stomach. Once seen, its unforgettable.
Dolls are another intriguing feature of the exhibit. For young girls, they were toys that held the promise of future children. Older girls and women owned small ritual dolls they believed symbolized their future children. Made of wood, fabric, string, beads, wax and pigment, the dolls had to be handled carefully.
A "Ritual Doll" from the Namibe province of Angola had still another function. The creator substituted an ear of corn for the usual fiber core. The corn indicates this womans dual roles of woman and farmer.
"Power figures" also appear in the show. Some are associated with medicines and carry healing remedies.

WHAT: "In the Presence of Spirits: African Art From the National Museum of Ethnology"
WHERE: National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 16 and until 8 p.m. Thursdays through Aug. 30
PHONE: 202/357-2700

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