The famous Luba mask
- Inventory number: EO.0.0.23470
- Anthropo-zoomorphic mask of the Luba people
- Material: wood (Ricinodendron rautanenil)
- Place and date of production (estimate): Luulu, Katanga, DR Congo, [Luba]. 2nd quarter of the 19th century
- Looted in Luulu on 26 March 1896 by Oscar Michaux's troops in the Congo Free State's armed force, the Force publique.
- Arrived in Belgium (according to the anthropologist Rik Ceyssens) via: Seeya - Luulu - Kasongo-Mfwamba - Luluaburg (July 1896) - Lusambo (1 August 1896) - Boma - Antwerp (29 July 1897)
- Oscar Michaux collection, Belgium
- Sold to the museum by Michaux's widow, Mathilde Mertens, on 18 April 1919, as part of a collection of more than 700 pieces.
The pillage of the village of Luulu
The Force publique was the armed force of Leopold II's Congo Free State. Composed of Congolese and other Africans, it served both a police and military role. In 1895, a revolt broke out within the Force Publique, known as the “Tetela rebellion”, which lasted for several years. Commandant Oscar Michaux (1860-1918) also took part in the 'Third Campaign against the Bashilenge and the Kiokos' during this period.
Escorting a supply caravan with his troops, Michaux and his men reached the village of Luulu on 26 March 1896. The village chief refused to allow the troops to set up camp in the village, so Michaux entered and occupied Luulu by force. When the inhabitants fled into the forest, their provisions and a number of possessions, including this mask, were looted from the deserted village.
The circumstances surrounding the looting of this mask in Luulu are known thanks to the journal of Albert Lapière, an officer with Michaux at the time. This document, of which the museum owns a copy, offers a first-hand account of the events that led to the looting of the village of Luulu.
Albert Lapière's journal was studied by Dr. Ceyssens who, in 2011, published a complete study of the Michaux collection with the AfricaMuseum's press. This work offers precise details concerning the conditions under which the mask was acquired.
The soldier Oscar Michaux
Oscar Joseph Isidore Michaux (Glimes, 27/03/1860 - Graveline, 07/01/1918) enlisted as a soldier in 1880. He graduated from the Belgian army's riding school in 1882 and became Second Lieutenant of the Cavalry in 1887. He was then posted to the school as Training Officer in 1888. On 8 November 1889, he joined the Institut cartographique militaire, the Belgian military cartography institute (the usual procedure for sending Belgian soldiers into the Congo Free State's Force publique).
Michaux departed for Congo on 2 December 1889. After arriving in Lusambo, he took part in the expeditions against chief Gongo Lutete and then in the fighting against the "Kioko" (Chokwe) merchants and caravan traders. During the “Arab campaign”, he took part in the “battle on the Lomami” against the Arab chief Sefu, whose 10,000 men suffered heavy casualties, estimated at 3,000 dead and countless drowned. After this “bloody and tragic” battle (in the soldier’s own words), Michaux was presented as a hero, as in Thiriar's watercolour (above) with the flags seized during the battle.
After returning to Belgium for a few months in 1893, Michaux returned to Congo in June 1894, and became District Commissioner of Kasaï-Lualaba at his former station in Lusambo. It was during this second term, and more particularly the “Tetela Rebellion” within the Force publique, that the Luba mask was looted in Luulu.
Composition and constitution of the 'Michaux collection'
This mask is the only one in a collection comprising no less than 715 objects.
The entire collection, sold by Michaux's widow to the museum in 1919, includes bowls, horns, boxes, statuary, sceptres/canes, combs, ivory items, a number of woven raffia textiles, weapons, musical instruments and chairs. All were acquired by the military during nearly seven years in Congo.
But we know very little about the contexts and methods by which they were acquired by Michaux. Apart from the collection's Kuba textile (EO.0.0.23676), which appears to have been sold/traded/given by Léon Rom, another Belgian officer of the Congo Free State, Michaux merely mentions possible transactions as he travelled up the Sankuru River during his first term in Congo:
Tous les jours du haut de ma cabine, je puis jouir d’un spectacle inoubliable, d’un coup d’œil merveilleux. Une cinquantaine de pirogues évoluent autour du bateau. Tous les noirs nous offrent en vente les marchandises les plus invraisemblables, voire même… des membres de leur famille. Les habitants du Sankuru sont très habiles aux ouvrages de mains. Ils confectionnent, entre autres choses, des nattes et des étoffes indigènes qui sont réellement superbes ; ainsi que des haches, des lances, des couteaux et des gobelets en bois qui sont de véritables petits chefs d’œuvre et dénotent, par leur originalité et leur fini, beaucoup de goût et d’art chez ces artistes, enfants de la nature.
“Every day, from my cabin, I can enjoy an unforgettable scene, a wonderful sight. Some fifty or so dugout canoes surround the boat. All the blacks offer the most improbable merchandise for sale, even… members of their family. The inhabitants of the Sankuru are very skilled with their hands. They craft things like mats and indigenous fabrics that are truly superb, as well as axes, spears, knives and wooden bowls that really are small masterpieces and, through their originality and their finish, attest to the great taste and skill of these artists, children of nature.”
Widespread "collecting" in this period accelerated the trade of these goods and also generated the production that fuelled such trade. Curator Maes mentions this "production" in a note concerning the Michaux collection dated 28 April 1919:
L’intérêt de cette belle collection réside en première ligne dans le fait que toutes les pièces possèdent non-seulement les renseignements d’origine et de provenance, mais en outre, la date de fabrication et de récolte.
“The value of this beautiful collection resides primarily in the fact that all the pieces have, not just information concerning origin and provenance, but also the date of production and collection.”
Contrary to what is stated in Maes' note, however, far from all the pieces are documented in the sources that were then transferred to the museum, which has given rise to many research theories. Indeed, at one time, the Luba mask was considered to be a piece that Michaux had "collected" from Tabora, in the centre of today’s Tanzania, in 1899 (Trésors cachés, 1995: 352).
According to Ceyssens, the objects in the Michaux collection were either traded, through chance encounters - often unfairly - or taken without permission during his military campaigns.
Without any real agenda and independent of a higher command, the Michaux collection was most likely put together, depending on the circumstances, as "military souvenirs", and on the basis of a certain curiosity for "beautiful exotic objects".
However, Michaux seemed to have little interest in the objects themselves. In his field book, Carnet de campagne, published in 1907, his focus and memories mostly concern descriptions of hunting episodes. In the second edition of his Carnet de campagne in 1913, he mentions the objects from Luulu, but this passage is most certainly an addition inspired by reading the journal of his former officer, Albert Lapière.
Michaux's and Lapière's versions, however, differ considerably. Michaux, as Lapière's superior, gives a misleading adaptation of his armed column's encampment in Luulu, clearly embellishing the event (Michaux 1913: 339):
Je lui répond que mes hommes sont trop fatigués pour établir un campement et passant outre, je prends possession du village, l’assurant que lui et ses gens n’avaient rien à craindre, ni pour eux ni pour leurs biens. Quelques heures après il était tout à fait rassuré. C’est dans ce village que j’ai vu le plus nombreux et les plus beaux fétiches, une immense tête creuse avec deux grandes cornes servant au féticheur qui se l’adaptait sur les épaules ; il y avait encore plusieurs fétiches ayant au moins un mètre de hauteur, et représentant l’un un homme et l’autre une femme avec un pot, battant le manioc, ainsi que plusieurs autres sujets très originaux et tous forts bien sculptés. La canne du chef était formée de cercles en cuivre allant en spirales de bas en haut ; elle était aussi surmontée d’une tête de femme très finement sculptée ; il y a avait également une massue dans le même genre, ainsi qu’une superbe pagaie, véritable merveille. Cette contrée est d’ailleurs très riche en objets de collection.
“I replied that my men were too tired to make camp, and, going ahead, I took possession of the village, offering him my assurance that he and his people had nothing to fear, neither for their person nor their property. A few hours later he was perfectly reassured. It was in this village that I saw the most abundant and the most beautiful fetish objects: an enormous hollow head with two large horns used by the fetish priest who wore it on his shoulders; there were also several fetish figures at least a metre tall, one representing a man and the other a woman with a pot beating manioc, as well as several other very original subjects, all very skilfully sculpted. The chief's cane was made of copper circles spiralling from bottom to top; it was also mounted with a very finely sculpted head of a woman. There was also a cudgel in the same style, as well as a superb paddle, a true marvel. This region has an abundance of collectible objects.”
Lapière, on the other hand, gives a lengthy description in his journal of the arrival of the force in Luulu and describes the seizing of the mask:
le 26 [mars] la route est fort longue, nous n’arriverons au village de Lulu que vers 2h et par contre il n’y a pas une goutte d’eau sur la route, heureusement qu’on nous a prévenu et qu’ainsi nous ayons pu prendre nos précautions. Il fait une chaleur suffocante comme un fait exprès, nous traversons d’immenses plaines formant de légers mamelons, le terrain est argilo-ferrugineux et pierreux, les herbes sont peu élevées, mais la réverbération est très forte ; grâce à nos provisions d’eau nos porteurs et nos gens ne souffrent pas trop. Vers 10 h nous voyons dans le lointain de fortes montagnes, il doit y avoir un village dans les environs, nous marchons dans les plantations, les hommes reprennent courage. En effet le village ne se trouve plus loin, nous y arriverons dans une demie heure tout au plus. Nous pénétrons dans une forêt très épaisse où nous découvrons de nombreux pièges. Nos hommes prennent plusieurs bêtes dans les fossés. Au sortir du bois le sentier descend très raide, le village se trouve à nos pieds. Il n’est pas très grand peut-être deux cents cases. Il n’y a pas de boma mais il est défendu de trois côtés par une brousse impénétrable et du quatrième côté par un vaste marais. A l’entrée du village, le chef fait mine de vouloir susciter des difficultés pour nous laisser entrer donnant des prétextes futiles ; les cases étaient très petites et peu nombreuses vu notre immense caravane, on était occupé à préparer le tribut, en deux mots il nous invitait tout bonnement à camper à la porte. Nous avons pris possession du village lui répondant que nous étions toujours prêts à l’entendre. Quelques instants après notre installation, plus une âme au village, le chef et tous ses gens venaient de nous brûler la politesse.
L’après-midi nos gens ont découvert 11 touques de poudre appartenant probablement à Kassongo-Niembo ou peut-être aux Kiokos. Ensuite plusieurs magnifiques chèvres égarées dans le village se sont fait prendre, on nous a ramené des fétiches en masse, en outre : une immense tête avec deux grandes cornes servant au féticheur qui se l’adaptait sur les épaules, elle était percée d’un grand nombre de petits trous venant à hauteur des yeux, il y a avait encore plusieurs statuettes d’un mètre de hauteur représentant un homme, une femme avec un pot battant le manioc et plusieurs autres sujets très originaux et tous fort bien soignés ; la canne du chef formée de cercles en cuivre rouge allant en spirales de bas en haut la canne était surmontée d’une tête de femme finement sculptée ; une massue dans le même genre puis une superbe pagaie complètement travaillée ; cette contrée-ci est d’ailleurs très riche en fait d’objets de collection.
Nous pensions à un certain moment avoir la guerre, les soldats découvraient toutes les cachettes et rapportaient quelque chose à chaque instant.
La nuit s’est passée sans incident.
Le 27 nous quittons Lulu, plus de marais seulement forêts tout le temps […]
“on the 26th [March] the journey was long; we would only arrive at the village of Lulu towards 2 o'clock and yet there was not a drop of water to be found on the way; fortunately, we had been forewarned and had been able to take precautions. As ill luck would have it, the heat was suffocating, we crossed vast plains covered in small hillocks, the earth was ferruginous clay and rocky, the grass low, but the glare was strong; thanks to our supply of water, our porters and our people did not suffer too much. At around 10 o'clock, we saw some high mountains in the distance, there had to be a village in the vicinity, we walked through plantations, the men’s courage was restored. Indeed, the village was not far off; we arrived in half an hour at the most. We entered a very dense forest where we discovered a number of traps. Our men took several animals from the pits. On leaving the woods, the path dropped steeply down to the village below. It was not very big, perhaps two hundred huts. There was no boma but it was defended on three sides by impenetrable brush and on the fourth by a vast marsh. At the entrance to the village, the chief looked as if he would make it difficult for us to enter under futile pretexts; the huts were very small and few in number compared with our huge column. We were preparing the tribute, in short he was simply inviting us to camp at the entrance. We took possession of the village, replying that we were still prepared to hear him. A few moments after we had made camp, there was not a soul in sight, the chief and all his people had given us the slip.
In the afternoon, our people discovered 11 containers full of powder probably belonging to Kassongo-Niembo or perhaps the Kiokos. Then several wonderful goats wandering in the village were captured, and we were brought a large number of fetish objects, including: an enormous head with two large horns used by the fetish priest who wore it on his shoulders, it was pierced with a large number of small holes around the eyes, there were also several statuettes a meter high, representing a man, a woman with a pot beating manioc and several other very original subjects and all carefully sculpted; the chief's cane made of red copper circles spiralling from bottom to top was mounted with a finely sculpted head of a woman; there was also a cudgel in the same style, as well as a superb paddle, a true marvel. This region has an abundance of collectible objects.
We thought at one point we might have a war on our hands; the soldiers uncovered all the hiding places and reported everything at all times.
The night passed without incident.
On the 27th we left Lulu, no more marsh, just forest all the time […]”
The difference between the two accounts - Lapière's private journal and the later published version by Michaux - suggests that Michaux himself retrospectively condemned the sacking of the village of Luulu, presumably deeming that these practices should remain undisclosed to a broad public, because they could significantly tarnish his prestige and/or his reputation.
The objects rounded up in Luulu can certainly be classed as booty acquired by use of force against the villagers confronted with Michaux’s armed column.
Loot and trophies
After he returned to Belgium, we do not know how the objects were stored/exhibited/used in Michaux' various homes. Apparently, they were hidden during the First World War and were found to be in a precarious state of conservation when proposed for sale to the museum after Michaux's death in 1918.
In 1913, Michaux offered the Belgian Ministry of War five flags seized on the African battlefields: three - including that belonging to Sefu - were from the battle of Chigé on the Lomami River on 23 December 1892, and two Chokwe flags. His correspondence with his ministerial superior reveals something of his perception of these objects. For instance, when Michaux wrote to the minister on 11 February 1913 to give him the donation personally, he writes about the flags: "I captured them”, and argues: “As I unfortunately do not have any children to bequeath them to, I would like to offer these trophies to the Military Museum.”
As far as Michaux was concerned, they were spoils of war that were his exclusive property, and it was only due to his lack of descendants that he agreed to give them to the Belgian state. At that time, however, Michaux was very unsatisfied with his military career and this donation was no doubt a way to remind his superior of his former achievements in Africa in the hope of obtaining a promotion.
The same did not apply to the collection of Congolese objects, which Michaux kept until his death. It was only after his death, in April 1919, that the collection was sold to the Tervuren Museum, as part of his estate.
However, some forty Congolese weapons - essentially spears - were not acquired by the Tervuren Museum, no doubt because they were considered of little interest. These were given by his widow several years later, in 1926, to the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History. Michaux's decorations, medals and pieces of military equipment were given to the Military Museum even later, in November 1929.
The collecting frenzy of Congo Free State officials
The entry of collections held by Congo Free State officials and military personnel (or their heirs) into Belgium's public institutions was haphazard, at their convenience and often in return for financial compensation.
To stem this phenomenon, and certainly the abuses committed through the extensive collecting carried out by individuals with varying ambitions, from 1896 (a few months after the sacking of Luulu), the employment contract of Congo Free State officials formally banned the creation of personal collections in order to prevent officials from engaging in occupations, in this case trade, other than those stipulated in their contract.
However, this curb was not necessarily enforced, and the Congo Free State's officials continued to bring back many objects to Belgium. Acquired as trophies and/or curios, these objects served as souvenirs and were incorporated into the decoration of their homes (Van Schuylenbergh 2006: 298).
Other objects from the Michaux collection in the museum's galleries
- Luba statue
The temporary exhibition Unrivalled Art presents two other objects brought back to Belgium by Michaux: the knife EO.0.0.23858 and the Luba sculpture EO.0.0.23459. The latter may also have come from the village of Luulu (Ceyssens 2011: 122).
C’est dans ce village [Luulu] que j’ai vu les plus nombreux et les plus beaux fétiches, […] ; il y avait encore plusieurs fétiches ayant au moins un mètre de hauteur et représentant l’un un homme, l’autre une femme avec un pot, […]
"It was in this village [Luulu] that I saw the most abundant and the most beautiful fetish objects [...]. There were also several fetish figures at least a metre tall, one representing a man and the other a woman with a pot [...]" (Michaux, 1913: 338-339)
Although only measuring 88cm high and not precisely matching the description in Lapière's journal or its later adaptation in Michaux' book (above), the hermaphroditic nature of this statue identifies it, according to Ceyssens, as one of the pieces seized during the pillaging in Luulu.
- Bembe sceptre
Three objects from the Michaux collection are also presented in the Rituals and Ceremonies Room. These are a Luba katatora rub oracle (EO.0.0.23472), a Luluwa statuette (EO.0.0.23465) and a rare Bembe sceptre (EO.0.0.23485). They are not thought to have come from Luulu.
Michaux could not have acquired this sceptre in situ because he never stayed with the Bembe people. He was never stationed or temporarily deployed on the right bank of the Lualaba River.
It is possibly, therefore, a "misplaced" object, which may have been acquired along the transportation routes to, for example, Kisangani and Lusambo, in the direction of Bas-Congo.
According to Ceyssens, it could also have been traded with Congo Free State officials (for example, one of the raffia items in the collection comes from Léon Rom), or with members of the Force publique, such as the Boyo (Buyu), neighbours of the Bembe, who were under Michaux's direct command on more than one occasion.
Text compiled from a draft by Agnès Lacaille based on specific research and a synthesis of the data below.
Interviews: Pierre Lierneux
- National Archives of Belgium:
- Fonds Minicol, 9089
- Fonds SPA, Africa personnel files "Michaux O.", no. 768/558
- Royal Museum for Central Africa:
- Ethnography section, Michaux acquisition file, DA.2.394 + Lapière papers
- History section: AA.1-I.222 Oscar Michaux (1919); 1958.60 (DA.7.1464); 1964.37 (DA.7.1907); 1979.57 (DA.7.2722)
- Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History: Oscar Michaux personal file and Correspondence
- Bouffioux M., 'Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale : un masque tellement ‘emblématique’', Paris Match, 2019.
- Cambier R., 'Oscar Isidore Joseph Michaux', Biographie Coloniale Belge, Brussels, Inst. roy. colon. Belge, volume I, 1948 (10 May 1947), pp. 685-693.
- Ceyssens R., De Luulu à Tervuren: la collection Oscar Michaux au Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale, Tervuren: AfricaMuseum Tervuren, 2011.
- Ceyssens R., La révolte de la force publique congolaise (1895) : les papiers Albert Lapière au musée de Tervuren, Louvain-la-Neuve, l’Harmattan, 2016.
- Coosemans M., 'Albert Lapière', Biographie Coloniale Belge, Brussels, Inst. roy. colon. Belge, T. II, 1951, col. 589-592.
- Félix M. L. (éd.), Masks in Congo, Hong Kong: Ethnic Art & Culture Ltd., 2016, p. 209.
- Michaux, Au Congo. Carnet de campagne. Episodes & impressions de 1889 à 1897, Brussels, Falk, 1907 & Edition Namur, Dupagne-Counet, 1913.
- Roberts Allen F. (éd.), Memory: Luba art and the making of history, New York Munich: Africa Center; Prestel, 1996.
- Van Schuylenbergh P., De l’appropriation à la conservation de la faune sauvage. Pratiques d’une colonisation : le cas du Congo belge (1885-1960), doctoral thesis, Louvain-la-Neuve, 2006
- Verswijver G. (éd.), Trésors d'Afrique, Musée de Tervuren, Tervuren: AfricaMuseum Tervuren, 1995, p. 190-191, 352.
- Volper J., Autour des Songye: Under the influence of the Songye, Montreuil: Éditions d'Art Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2012, p. 89.
- Volper, Ce que veut dire un masque: réflexions iconographiques autour d'un chef-d'œuvre du MRAC in: Tribal Art Magazine 71, Spring 2014 (2014): 126-127, 129-130, 133. Video
- Volper (éd.), Art Sans Pareil: Objets merveilleux du Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale, Kontich: Bai Publishers; AfricaMuseum Tervuren, 2018, p. 134.
The information contained in this article is mostly based on resources available at the museum (archives, publications, etc.). As is often the case, African sources providing other perspectives are missing. The objects' biographies, therefore, can still be developed further. Do you have any comments, information or stories to share about this object or this type of object? Please contact us: email@example.com.
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