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Unmasking dramatic African art
By Wang Jie

AFRICA is widely considered by anthropologists to be the cradle of human civilization from where "modern" humans began migrating 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. The continent has always fascinated travelers and writers. Its "Black Art" profoundly influenced Western artists in the early 20th century.

Today in China, many people know little about Africa, except for its vast mineral wealth that helps fuel China's economic growth.

An exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of masks and statues from Central Africa sheds light on the complexity of ancient African cultures and art.

"Congo River," an exhibition on loan from Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, features 71 masks and sculptures from various Central African communities and showcases their art and legends.

Despite their varied geographic origins and variety of materials, the artworks are united by secret lines, subtle connections and belief systems. A number of masks depict "heart-shaped faces" and fertility figures are common.

Chen Xiejun, the curator at Shanghai Museum, said many artists and collectors at the beginning of the 20th century were inspired by Central African sculptures. He cites Paul Guillaume, Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Charles Ratton and Helena Rubinstein.

"Actually Central African sculptures remain the molds, the 'classics' - the standards for what was known at that time as 'Black Art'," he says.

The first section of the exhibition introduces a variety of masks representing gods and spirits used in ceremonies. The owl-face masks and masks with antelope horns of the Kwele people are examples of animal forms incorporated into religious systems of peoples with close connections with nature.

The second section focuses on ancestor worship. One statue is known as ankisinkondi, sometimes translated as "nail power figure" or fetish, containing nails, blades and sharp protruding objects. They were said (and by some still are) to possess formidable powers that could be activated in rituals.

The wide-open eyes on one nkondi may indicate readiness to defend on the spot. The eyes are made of glass, enabling the figure to see clearly in the world of spirits and ancestors. The figures were used as a medium for healing, for hunting down wrong-doers and for concluding peace treaties between villages.

Date: Through July 7, 9am-5pm

Address: Shanghai Museum, 201 People's Ave

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