Filling the upstairs west wing with an opulence of carved wood, ivory, and animal materials, the Congolese works on display aren't art for art's sake. Placards explain that the masks, figurines, carved animals, and tools are objects that regulate a multilayered social system. Used only during initiation rites, these objects function as teaching tools, each one representing multiple proverbs or parables. Divorced from this cultural context, the works seem mute.
They're also vulnerable to misinterpretation. One Western researcher interpreted a statue with a raised hand as appealing to a higher power. The exhibit's book-length catalog reveals that statues of this class, called kasangala, actually refer to solving community problems. The figures point to the sky to indicate the size of problems solved in the past.
In addition to the intrigue of hidden meaning, the works possess beauty. Rows of the pangolin's fingernail-sized triangular gray scales mount the cone-shaped hat and sweep down in a narrow tail. Iridescent shells and pearly buttons twinkle at the sides and front.
Nearby, ivory spoons glow with mellow warmth. Their variously carved handles and bowls may have been polished to their rich gloss by years of handling, since many of the objects were passed down through generations. Most of the items on display, except for those decorated with Western buttons, are of unknown age.