The Second Face — African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection

EXHIBITION 14.02 – 27.04.97

As a collection of African sculpture, the Barbier-Mueller Collection in Geneva documents the Dark Continent in all its creative richness as hardly any other museum does. Founded in the first decades of the twentieth century by Josef Mueller, Jean Paul Barbier — as Mueller's successor — developed the collection into an exemplary African art museum with his profound anthropological expertise and collecting skills. 

As one of the epitomes of African art, masks constitute the core of the collection. These are represented in all their diversity: Facial masks for protection and disguise, masks made out of tree trunks and whose cavities house the entire head, helmet masks, crown and forehead masks in which the wearer has to bend forward so that the masked face looks at the viewer, headdress masks, and last but not least, spectacular large shoulder masks. 

Predominantly works by anonymous artists, most of the masks are carved out of single pieces of wood and embody mythological, spiritual beings. A majority of the works from West and Central Africa were made for the local secret societies, and served as cult objects in ritual ceremonies, such as those that were used in coming of age celebrations. Other masks were used by hunters as disguises so that they could approach their game more inconspicuously. 

In the Barbier-Mueller Collection, all African regions in which masks were carved and worn are represented with exceptional examples. These include the Baga and Nalu in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau, the Bamana and Dogon of Mali, the famous Fang of Gabon, the Makonde in the East African nation of Tanzania and, finally, the Yoruba as well as the endangered Ogoni from Nigeria. 

Early twentieth-century European artists were fascinated by ritual sculptures and masks because of their formal qualities. In search of simplicity of form, originality, and immediacy of expression, they were inspired by the archaic severity and expressive power of African handcrafts, which ushered in the dawn of Modernism. 

The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi
The Second Face – African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, installation view, Haus der Kunst, 1997, photo Wilfried Petzi

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