Initiations are important life events. The marks they leave make it impossible to return to a former state: the transformation is permanent. Often organised by secret societies, in Africa they are seen as a necessary condition for obtaining a special position. Initiations marking the transition from childhood to adulthood are well known, but they often accompany other changes of status. In the past they were frequent in Central Africa; today they are progressively disappearing or, at least, losing something of their unbending strictness. Initiation rituals do not easily stand up to the demands of modern life, school timetables, imported religions, economic exploitation, political instability and the standardising pressures of globalisation.

In the past, however, initiations (were the) generated a crucible of (an) intense creativity, a source of (a) tangible and intangible cultural heritage. In order to accompany and give credibility to the profound changes engendered by rites of passage, the populations of the Congo Basin produced numerous artworks. Masks, sculptures, protective objects, costumes and headdresses are among the artefacts used in these periods of transition. In initiations that enabled adults to perfect their complex paths within closed or secret societies, as in those endured by young people before they could be fully integrated into their community and start a family, tremendous energies were mobilised.

The works presented in Initiates Congo Basin were made for use in these rituals; they enable us to revisit the sometimes dangerous and frightening initiation rituals a person had to undergo in order to win status, identity and a place in society. The initiates' collective commitment left indelible marks on their minds and bodies; it also wove indestructible bonds – as deep as the bonds of kinship – between the members of each particular initiation class. Enduring ordeals and mutilations together, testing resistance to pain and braving the fear of death – (this) was the price they had to pay to access new knowledge, techniques and practices, and to earn the right to use them as they willed. It was thus that they widened the gap separating them from the uninitiated, impressing on their minds a sentiment of superiority.


Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau and Anne-Marie Bouttiaux

9 October 2013 - 06 July 2014

Private collection



Masks are key agents in most initiations: they protect, teach, inflict punishment, frighten, give up their secrets and participate actively in the quest for identity.

Romuald Hazoumè's masks generate surprise and questioning, fitting well the creative effervescence of great transformations. The work of this celebrated Beninese artist springs from an initiatory process that has led him to question his role and to explore new avenues of thought about the consumer society, the West's appalling wastefulness and the issues surrounding recycling in Africa. Hazoumè comes from a background in which Christianity rubs shoulders with and is permeated by Beninese Vodun rituals. He observes with humour, but without complacency, the clash of cultures whose limits he tests through his work. His masks inevitably bring to mind those used in African initiations, but they also evoke the types the West is suspiciously enamoured with. They are literally as well as figuratively pseudo masks (bidon, in French, means both jerry can and phoney). They hold a mirror up to our contradictions, our questions about authenticity, and our love of art and its manifestations.

The exhibition includes works from the private and public collections of Musée Dapper, Rotterdam's Wereldmuseum and Antwerp's Museum aan de Stroom. Above all, and quite exceptionally, there are also major pieces from the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium), which will be temporarily closed for renovation, enabling Musée Dapper to showcase an important series of objects for its own public.

9 October 2013 - 06 July 2014

Fang, 2012

English Version
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