The Kwele people are a tribal group that occupy a great forest region on the borders of eastern Gabon, Republic of the Congo, and Cameroon in Central Africa.
They fled the coastal area of West Africa during the 19th century, after their traditional enemies acquired firearms from the slave traders. This altercation is often called the "Poupou" war. The Kwele then settled into lands between the Dja and Ivindo rivers. The Kwele are noted for their ceremonial masks which are collected as art objects.
Their village communities comprised a number of lineages and were governed in the usual way for "headless" equatorial societies, that is in a diffuse and more or less informal manner.
The Kwele believe that unexplained deaths, epidemic smallpox, and other mysterious threats to the well-being of individuals or the community are caused by witchcraft. Witches are believed to live in male or female hosts, from which they emerge at night to feed upon the internal organs of their victims.
The antidote to witchcraft is the beete ritual, which includes masked performances. The beete cult reinforces unity and maintains social order. The beete ritual, which lasted for a week, would open with the departure of men into the forest to hunt antelope, whose flesh, seasoned with medicines, had to be eaten at a meal at the closing ceremony. During the hunt, women and children stayed in the village; after one or two days, ekuk masks would “leave” the forest, enter the village, and invite the people to come dance and sing. Ekuk means both “protective forest spirit” and “children of beete.”
It displays a flat surface and often has a whitened heart-shaped face, a triangular nose, coffee-bean eyes and small or non-existent mouth. This mask, with two large horns, represents the antelope. The faces are usually painted in white kaolin earth, a pigment associated by the Kwele with light and clarity, the two essential factors in the fight against evil.
Later another mask, the gon (gorilla), announced by bells, would make its entrance; the women would immediately lock up all the domestic animals inside the huts; everyone would begin looking for shelter. Gon is a dangerous mask. The wearer of the gon mask is nude – as opposed to the person dressed in the ekuk, who wears a wide skirt of fibers.
The gon mask is made in the image of a skull of a gorilla, an animal feared by the Kwele because of its frequent destruction of their crops. The masks are hung in Kwele houses and also worn during dances related to initiation ceremonies of the beete cult. Their function was to "warm up" the village atmosphere in order to activate the beneficial forces.
Maskers made the spirits manifest. Entering the village to the accompaniment of music, male spirits pranced rhythmically, while female spirits (also danced by men) shuffled slowly.
The masks are associated with the Beete association, which maintains social order, and are also used in initiation rites and at the end of mourning periods. Thought to represent benevolent forest spirits, the masks represent people or animals, or a combination of the two. Many lack eye slits; the masks are shown rather than worn, and many are painted with white kaolin earth, which the Kwele associate with light and clarity.
In the beete ritual which they perform, there is a gorilla masked person (Gabon) as the opposition to the Ekuk mask.
Although they fashioned objects in iron, it is above all through their sculptures, masks, and anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and even anthropozoomorphic statuettes that they gained their fame. Their masks are recognized by their great simplicity, in a concentrated and analytical expression
They produced a famous type of mask called Ekuk. It displays a flat surface and often has a whitened heart-shaped face, a triangular nose and coffee bean eyes. These masks were hung in their houses and rarely worn during dances related to the initiation ceremonies of the Bwete cult. Their function was to ‘warm up’ the village atmosphere in order to activate the beneficial forces resident in the Bwete box.
Some other masks have obvious animal or bird attributes and bear their names; others are enigmatic in their identity. Stylized sculptures with similar facial features are also produced. Inside the Kwele huts sculpted plaques can be found.