Where did the museum’s African artworks come from, and how did they get here?
Our inability to answer basic questions—who made this, where, and why—about historical African artworks reveals a lot about Euro-American museums and the field of art history itself. The mask above, called a kifwebe (plural bifwebe), from the museum’s collection is a good example.
African objects, including fine textiles and metalwork, began circulating in Europe and parts of Asia during the Middle Ages. By the early 1900s, certain works were more widely available, and drew increasing attention not only from colonial administrators, but also from artists, dealers, and collectors.
Although the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) chose in the mid-twentieth century to leave active collecting and stewardship of African works to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum), it does hold a group of nearly fifty objects from sub-Saharan Africa scattered across three departments, in addition to a number of African textiles. The majority were donated by several prominent white Philadelphians.
Art historians use a variety of methods to try to understand a work’s life story, from its beginnings in a community in Africa to its eventual arrival at an art museum in, for example, North America. Collectors’ and dealers’ account books sometimes record or give clues about the object’s geographic origin. Government records might detail whether the work was commissioned for the international art market by colonial officers or created for indigenous use and then bought or—sometimes—stolen. Comparing artworks across multiple museums and private collections can enable art historians to identify the hand of a single carver, weaver, or other artist. Traveling to the continent to live with descendant communities, gather oral histories, and look at related artworks enables researchers to determine continuities and changes in artistic style and function of a given art form over time. These visits also offer opportunities for museums to return works that were seized illegally or unethically.
The PMA’s kifwebe mask, part of a private collection donated to the museum in the 1950s, exemplifies how colonialism continues to define and limit what we can learn about African art produced during the first half of the twentieth century. This type of carved wooden mask is associated with kifwebe associations in central Africa, specifically what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). These associations were first documented in the early 1900s by European anthropologists. Masks like this one are just one element of a masquerade ensemble, which includes raffia accoutrements to cover the body of the male practitioner of masende, the Songye term for the powerful spiritual and pharmacological knowledge acquired through intensive training.
This work’s tricolor striations, projecting and abstracted facial features, and distinctive crest are characteristic of masks from the Kalebwe region of the DRC. Beginning in the 1920s, association members began to develop secular forms of bifwebe in order to circumvent prohibitions on indigenous African religious and sociopolitical organizations, and were used instead to entertain Belgian colonial officials and European tourists. We can only date this kifwebe to the first half of the 1900s, as no documentation for the work exists prior to its donation to the museum in 1957 by Samuel S. White III and Vera White.
The kifwebe went unresearched in the museum’s storage until 1973, when then-curator Anne d’Harnoncourt exchanged a series of letters with Allen Wardwell, curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, in an attempt to gather more information about the mask’s provenance (its history of ownership over time). During a visit to Wardwell’s office, d’Harnoncourt had noticed a kifwebe similar to the one at PMA. Wardwell replied, stating that the work in his possession had been commissioned by “a Belgian named Timmermans” in the 1930s and asserted that he believed the work at PMA was part of the same commission. While these letters might seem to clarify how this kifwebe arrived in Philadelphia, in fact, Wardwell’s comments further obscure the story.
Wardwell references “our” kifwebe in his letter to d’Harnoncourt, as if he means one at the Art Institute of Chicago, but that museum has no Congolese masks in their collection. While Wardwell’s career began at the Penn Museum and he also worked for some time at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York, it is unlikely he was referring to the bifwebe held by those institutions, given how dissimilar they were to PMA’s in style and scale. Additionally, the commission cannot be attributed to the notable Belgian colonial administrator and scholar Paul Timmermans, founding director of the Museum of Art and Folklore in Luluabourg (now Kananga), since Timmermans didn’t arrive there until the 1950s. So it remains unclear what mask d’Harnoncourt saw in Wardwell’s office, and who commissioned the work in PMA’s collection.
The specific history of this kifwebe may ultimately be unrecoverable through the method of following a paper trail. The colonial administrators who bought—or illegally seized—works like this from their communities of origin may not have been compelled to write down the location, the name of the maker, or even their purpose. Nor would many of the important dealers, such as Paul Guillaume, Pierre Matisse, and Charles Ratton, among others. Even if they did record these details, collectors like Samuel and Vera White did not preserve this information. In contrast to their Black contemporaries, most notably W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke, white collectors and scholars were largely disinterested in the indigenous African meanings of these works. Rather, the objects’ importance was derived from their roles as design inspiration for white contemporary artists.
Turning to visual comparison, although the Whites’ kifwebe is strikingly similar to a mask in the surrealist poet Roland Penrose’s collection, the lack of records makes connecting the two works extremely difficult. If Penrose and the Whites had purchased their works from the same dealer around the same time, we could plausibly identify them as the work of a single artist. So the name of the artist who carved this mask and for what purpose—sacred or secular—may be lost.
Much of what we do know about bifwebe masquerades is the result of researchers’ work with heritage-bearers in communities in the DRC in the 1970s and 80s, before the First and Second Congo Wars that occurred from 1996 to 2003. More recently, political conflicts beginning in 2012 between the Congolese national government and armed groups in the Ituri, Kivu, and Kasai regions escalated into violent conflict, bringing research to a halt for both indigenous and foreign scholars.
In 2018, international discussions about the ethics of collecting and presenting African objects in Europe and the Americas that were acquired during the colonial period were renewed. That year, provenance research expert Bénédicte Savoy and the economist and theoretician Felwine Sarr released a study entitled “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a Relational Ethics.” The study, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, focused on French national collections, but its conclusions have implications for any non-African museum.
My research on PMA’s collection contributes in a small way to ongoing efforts to generate a more accurate understanding of how the meanings attributed to African works from the early 1900s changed as the objects traveled through a variety of networks during the colonial period.
Hilary Whitham Sánchez is a recent Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Fellow in the museum’s European Painting department. She’s an art historian whose academic research and curatorial work focuses on transnational cultural exchanges and ephemeral art forms along the Black Atlantic. She holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, and her work has been supported by The Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Currently, she is preparing a project commemorating the fifth anniversary of The Incubation Series, an initiative she founded in 2015 to extend the audience for graduate student artists and curators throughout Philadelphia through partnerships with cooperative galleries.