Special show: TEKE- RITUAL FIGURES – Magic figures of Congo


The 51st COLOGNE FINE ART & DESIGN from 17th to 21st November 2021 in Cologne encloses with its high-quality offer a unique variety of arts and crafts from the early days to modern times and at the same time covers all epochs, genres and cultural spaces. With the unique special show “TEKE – RITUAL FIGURES”, the fair is building the bridge to Africa and Congo this year. The special exhibition with its more than 40 pieces is a cooperation of Koelnmesse with Galerie Simonis in Düsseldorf, which specializes in African art.


Deep in the religious world of ancient Africa are rooted by the magical figures of the lower reaches of Congo, which can be seen as part of the special show. The creators of these works come from the Teke people, descendants of one of the great, long-lost kingdoms of Central Africa. The ritual figures, often packed by a bundle of magical material, were intended to provide immediate access to another world: once they embodied the power of the ancestors and the power of the nature spirits. In all their diversity long appreciated by collectors worldwide as works of art, they are now an unmistakable contribution to the wealth of African cultures.


According to the tradition of most African peoples, the Teke believed in a single supreme being whose favor can be acquired through the help of protective spirits. In general, the Teke felt dependent on both the power of these spirits and the power of the ancestors. The spirits demanded cult worship, because they can do good and evil.


The forces of the ancestors also demanded attention, as they ensure the well-being of the descendants, but also punished them in the event of violation of social rules. African ancestors are thus a way to deal with the everyday duality of well-being or misfortune. This ritual practice clearly shows the close entanglement of social and religious significance of the ancestral cult.


The statues are representatives of the deceased, as it were containers of their souls. Their barrel or spherical magical charge therefore often contains physical remains of them such as hair or fingernails, and mixed white kaolin symbolizes the bones of the ancestors. The healer/priest is the one who fills the magical mass of plant, animal and mineral ingredients into the elongated cavity in the belly of the figure or attaches it to it by means of a clay ball to activate the ritual effect.


Figures who had not helped against illness, hunting accidents and other misfortunes in the hoped-for sense were also destroyed or thrown away without much respect, as field researchers report. Quite a few pieces have probably come into the market in this way and finally into European or American collections.


The carvings with a wooden body of cylindrical basic shape are consistently created in strict frontality: The carver divides the wood into three segments of about the same size for the head, torso and legs and begins with his protruding mouth and the angular beard-chin area at the face. Even with only fleeting viewing, in addition to the compact packages of magical cargo, the dense tattoo of parallel scars is immediately noticeable, which reproduces the men’s real facial ornament already cut into children.


The beard is a symbol of male authority and wisdom; it underlines the powerful charisma of the Teke sculptures. Since the body is almost completely hidden under the medical package anyway, the blunder has portrayed the arms rather carelessly, if they exist at all. Striking are the artistic hairstyles, which are modeled on the hair style of the leadership elite still worn today on special occasions. They have the shape of a comb, a sickle or similarity to a cap worn on the back of the head.


The contrast between the expressive, carefully carved heads and the rough medical package, which only makes the figure a ritual object animated by the effectiveness of the ancestors and nature spirits, makes up the tension of the carving as a visually convincing representation of non-earthly powers. The mysterious materials, thickly wrapped in clay and fabric, transform the almost monstrous deformed sculptures into real assemblages that are difficult for Western eyes to understand.


The art of Africa has generally left its mark on the painting, graphics and sculpture of modernity of Europe: Clear references especially to the stylistics of the Teke heads with their cubist-looking forms and the “hatchings” of the facial scars can be noticed in particular among expressionist “bridge” artists. They have succeeded in merging the specific aesthetics of the Teke figures with their own revolutionary design language in the time of upheaval of European art.


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