3 - 24 February 2024

3-24 February 2024

Thursday-Saturday, 13-18h

And by appointment

Leopoldplaats 12, Antwerp (first floor)


Studying, collecting, and loving classical African art breaks paradigms. The encounter with other cultures and their unique worldviews shakes up our uniform view of reality. While learning about these artworks, alternative manners to structure and regulate a society are discovered, and thereby reveal different perspectives on our own social constructions and blind spots.


Since the eighteenth century, Western tradition has placed much emphasis on the individual as a self-contained entity. The associated concept of individualism is so self-evident that when examining other cultures, we impose it on them. Many studies have challenged the accuracy of this view as it pertains to Africa. Men and women were bound in a web of relationships with one another, as well as with invisible entities and objects. Boundaries between an individual and society, this world and the supernatural, and men and nature wereblurred. Nobody stood on his own, everybody and everything was intertwined and in constant flux. Rituals were key to keep this entanglement in a perfect balance. It is impossible to explore indigenous epistemologies without taking this into consideration, especially when studying the relation between artistic forms and the world views of those who made and used them. 


With a special focus on Nigeria, the artworks carefully selected for this catalog are the product of cultures with century-old traditions, developed unswayed by Western dominance. Discovering their use and ritual context offers inspiring windows on values and principles that once governed these societies. These objects reveal complex belief systems where every single iconographic detail part of a symbolic language. However, often these meanings are not easily understood. So, as the Igbo proverb says, "The ram goes into a fight headfirst" (Ebunoji ibi eje ogui*); that is, one must plunge into a venture in order to succeed, as we dived deep into our library, uncovering the fascinating stories behind the sculptures and masks in this exhibition. Unravelling the stories behind each visual element adds layers of understanding and appreciation of these artworks, while we sometimes need to accept that we can barely scratch the surface. A second Igbo proverb became this exhibition’s title: “The world is a dancing masquerade”, quoted by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe in an interview with German scholar Ulli Beier to express the idea of change, as nothing is permanent, and the cultures under discussion here being incessantly in motion. The meeting of these two giants, recorded in this interview, is highly recommended and integrally reproduced after this humble foreword. 


The title’s “masquerade” (or mask) was much more than the wooden artwork we put on a pedestal in this exhibition. The costume, music and performance were as crucial to the success of the ritual act as the mask itself. While we enjoy the exceptional virtuosity in wood sculpting or copper alloy casting, these artworks couldn’t function without the complex belief system in which they operated. The agents of these complex cultures commissioned unique tools to an end from specialized artists to materialize ideas and beings. The artworks in this catalog therefor stand as a testament to the profound intertwining of spirituality, art, and craftsmanship. 


*Quoted from: Bentor, Eli, “Life as an Artistic Process: Igbo Ikenga and Ofo”, African Arts, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1988, p. 70.