Magic, mystic or just scary?
Attic discovery on display at Expressions Whirinaki
A dramatic exhibition of over 70 African masks and statues from West and Central Africa opened at Expressions Whirinaki
Ranging from masks studded with nails and shards of glass to statues laden with magical metal these objects challenge
our ideas about art, tradition, and culture. The works are from ethnic groups in nine countries ranging from Ivory Coast
to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the emphasis on figures from the lower Congo.
The exhibition is created from a collection of West and Central African statues and masks owned by Whanganui collector
Desmond Bovey. The nucleus of the collection was assembled by Frenchman Paul Le Lay, who from 1946 to 1959 was posted in
all of the capitals of French territories in Africa. After Le Lay’s death his collection languished in an attic in
Burgundy. Years later it was recovered by his son-in-law, Desmond Bovey, a New Zealander who worked in France as an Art
Director and illustrator. During his 30 years in France, Bovey’s fascination for these objects grew. Back in New
Zealand, it is Bovey’s wish that these objects, so little understood, and the unknown artists who made them, be
accessible to a wider audience. His knowledge and passion for African cultures provide the region with a unique
opportunity to explore another culture.
Minkisi is a word that refers to statues that hold a spirit, or which embody a purpose meant for the good of an
individual or group of people. The pieces are dramatic and intriguing, inviting us to explore the creativity of
different cultures. Despite how confrontational they look, Minkisi are designed to be protectors and the objects in this
exhibition have been decommissioned before leaving Africa. In many African societies a mask or statue can outlive its
magic. This is especially true for the baKongo and their Minkisi. If a statue is considered to have lost its spirit or
power, it is abandoned to the weather and termites, or sold. If sold, works that have a religious function are
Bovey comments that the exhibition’s aim is to ‘introduce unfamiliar cultures and aesthetic values to antipodean
audiences. Minkisi works on several levels; while most of us respond to the immediate visual impact of these exotic and
powerful objects, a curious visitor is inevitably sensitive to a deeper spiritual dimension.’ With this in mind, brief
texts are provided for each object, enabling greater insight into its function and meaning.
Curator Chris Doherty-McGregor has been amazed by the response to the exhibition. “People are spending along time in the
space. There is a lot to take in and objects that you rarely see. Many people are commenting that the number and depth
of works are beyond anything seen before”.