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Treasure of the month

Woven mat representing a funerary rite

Coart, 1927

Origin: Bwende (Kongo group)
Provenance: current province of Congo central
Registered: in the RMCA in 1927
Dimensions: H 131 cm x L 169 cm
Materials: two types of vegetable fibres, yellow and red respectively
Technique: weave
Inventory number: EO.0.0.29227



The theme depicted in this piece makes it unique among the hundreds of woven mats found in the RMCA collections. The mat shows a funerary rite among the Bwende – a group belonging to the Kongo culture – after the death of an important person. The body was wrapped in numerous layers of fabric, eventually forming an anthropomorphic sarcophagus called a ‘niombo’ that could be several metres high. This figure was carried to its final resting place during a funeral procession.
The ‘niombo’ found in the centre of the mat is surrounded by six smaller human figures and geometric patterns such as svastikas and spirals. It is not known if the mat was indeed used during one of these funerary rituals, though many mats were buried at the same time as the deceased.

Restoration

processsion_mat.jpg
Niombo procession. Photo E. Karlman, 1925.
The mat was in extremely poor condition. A colour photograph from a 1927 publication shows it largely intact, even if the first signs of deterioration are already visible. Storing it rolled for a prolonged period and the drying out of the fibres did the rest. Moreover, the mat is unstable because of its many tears and holes. There is significant loss of material and some portions have become detached. Its rolled position during storage also deformed the piece. As the fibres are now hard, rigid, and friable and the mat is deformed, tears continue to occur.

This funerary mat will go on exhibit when the museum reopens. At the moment it is too fragile to be presented. Aesthetically speaking, the object cannot be displayed in its current state either. Restoration work has thus begun, and consists of cleaning, smoothing out and stabilizing the object by weaving on coloured Japanese paper. Weaving will accomplish two purposes:

  1. Connect two torn sections, giving the mat’s weakened areas greater stability while guarding its flexibility;
  2. Restore the visual unity of the patterns found on the mat. As the object was selected for the museum’s reopening because of its unique imagery, it is essential for the represented images to be highly readable.

Only the largest tears and holes will be woven. The edges will not be restored in full. Once the work has been done, the mat will be fixed upon a flat, rigid base and will no longer be rolled up.
 

Bibliography

  • Coart, Emile Jean Baptiste, de Haulleville, Alphonse. 1927. Annales du Musée du Congo Belge Tervueren. Ethnographie et Anthropologie, Serie III. Notes analytiques sur les collections ethnographiques du Congo Belge. Tome II Les industries indigènes: F II Les nattes, Tervuren.
  • Simon, Kavuna. 1995. ‘Northern Kongo Ancestor Figures’, in: African Arts 28(2): 48-53.
  • Svenson, Ann E. 1986. ‘Kuba Textiles: An Introduction’, in: Western Association for Art Conservation (WAAC) 8(1): 2-5.
  • Volper, Julien, ‘Les cérémonies funéraires bwende’, in: Dulon, B. (ed.), Carnets de voyage: Edmond Dartevelle, un valeureux explorateur africain, Sarran: Musée du président Jacques Chirac, pp. 92-103.
        
front_map.jpg back_mat.jpg restoration_mat.jpg

Condition of the mat's front, after smoothing and weaving of large tears and holes.
Photo: J. Van de Vijver
Condition of the mat's back prior to treatment
Photo: J. Van de Vijvver
Restoration of the mat
Photo: A. De Paepe

 



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