Exploring Africa through the eyes of a mask

West and Central African spiritual beliefs will form the basis of an exhibition in Expressions Whirinaki in Upper Hutt. ...
Mytchall Bransgrove

West and Central African spiritual beliefs will form the basis of an exhibition in Expressions Whirinaki in Upper Hutt. Minkisi - Art and Belief in West and Central Africa featuring 75 figures, is the result of Whanganui's Desmond Bovey being driven to find the story behind the West African statues.

A collection of rare masks and statues has offered an insight into African tribal life.

Minkisi: Art and Belief in West and Central Africa is currently on display in Expressions Whirinaki, in Upper Hutt.

Collection owner Desmond Bovey started gathering the pieces in the 1980s, when he moved to France for to study. A two-year study trip turned into 30 years in the country.

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A selection of Desomnd Bovey's collection currently on display at Expressions Whirinaki in Upper Hutt. The show runs until April 23.

The collection includes a range of tribal carvings, including minkisi power figures.

The nails in minkisi statues records a consultation with a nganga (priest-healer-diviner). A nail might seal an oath or provide protection against illness or theft.

Bovey's collection has been travelling around New Zealand and is currently in Upper Hutt. It will soon travel to Palmerston North and Taupo.

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France has strong connection to Africa and Bovey developed an interest in West and Central African cultures and started collecting carvings and pieces from different tribal regions.

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"I don't feel any sense of ownership," he said, "I feel a sense of guardianship and I feel huge respect for the unknown artists who made [the statues]."

On display are more than 70 statues and masks, collected from Africa. The nucleus of the exhibition came from a collection Bovey inherited when his father-in-law died.

Minkisi is coded into three areas, each mapping where the pieces came from. The biggest section holds pieces from the mouth of the Congo river. The name Minkisi comes from here, Bovey said.

The group of tribes, known as the Bakongo, were known for creating power figures called minkisi which were studded with nails and said to be empowered with magic.

The idea of a mask was different in African cultures and encompassed costumes, dances and the power behind it rather than a simple wooden mask Westerners think of.

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In African culture, a mask or statue could outlive its magic. Once the spirit was lost from an object, they were often abandoned or sold, which is how Bovey came across them.

The first piece he bought in a flea market decades ago was admittedly "crappy" but he still loved it.

It's been a long journey since then, travelling to collect and study pieces, and forging friendships in Africa to further understand the culture.

The statues and masks first went on display in 2011 in Whanganui. Bovey has held four exhibitions since then and plans to take the exhibition to Palmerston North and Taupo.

Overall, reaction to the exhibition was actually very mixed. Some people felt a connection to the cultural side of the exhibition while others only saw the aesthetic side.

"There's a whole population who gets it and then there's people who don't,"  he said.

* Minkisi is showing at Expressions Whirinaki until April 23.

 - Stuff

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