Sommerens åbningstider 

(1. juli - 31. august)

Tir-søn: kl. 11-17

Mandage: lukket


Museumsvej 2A
DK-7500 Holstebro
+ 45 9742 4518



Bwami mask, Lega. Photo: Lars Bay Bwami mask, Lega. Photo: Lars Bay

Permanent presentation Western African

Peoples, not countries, are what shaped Africa’s artistic geography, and masks were being created on the continent long before the West’s colonisations imposed new national borders. West Africa and Western Central Africa, with their river deltas, fertile savannahs and forests, make up the heartland of Africa’s mask production. Many hundreds of peoples live here, with different languages and cultures, who have partly maintained their venerable social organisation and religious practices. 
Mask dances play a crucial role in many of these communities, as do the so-called 'secret societies'. The societies constitute powerful and closed entities that ensure cohesion and balance, and admission to them requires ritual initiation. It is the task of the societies to carry out rites of passage and funerals, and to maintain the vital contact to the ancestors and supernatural forces on behalf of the community. Often they also play socialisation roles, and, in some cases, judicial ones.
Art as action
In these contexts, the masks are indispensable. They embody all the interconections of life and the community, and extend the human body and its scope as a dwellingplace for supernatural beings, gods, ideas, morality, family and vitality. 
African mask art is about ritual practice and function. In combination with the host human body, these conceptual and magical beings acquire physical form when the masks are danced in certain ways. They pass across the threshold between the worlds, and the mask dances are living images that do something, rather than represent something. 
A good or sacred mask should be able to cure, promote, guide, protect and communicate. In the African mask tradition, spirituality and art are not contemplative, but social-religious activities.
African art and the West
The aesthetics of the masks lie far from the Western art tradition and its conventions. For the Catholic explorers, and the later colonial powers, the African mask was an expression of paganism – but this otherness became crucial to the artists of Modernism, with their recognition of African art in the early 20th century. The German expressionists, artists like Picasso and Giacometti, and the surrealists sought to circumvent the bourgeois demand for naturalism – and they found an artistic alternative in the humanity and expressive power of African art. 
From Paris, interest in African art spread to art communities in the rest of Europe and the United States. These groups laid claim to the African mask in both literal and metaphorical terms. It received a place in European art history as an appendix to Modernism – and in the art trade as a sought-after collector’s item.
A stream of African art has flowed to the West since the colonial powers laid down the borders of Africa in 1885. There were several waves of West African collecting in the 20th century, but around 1970 they ceased. The reason was simple – the countries of West Africa had been practically emptied of traditional artefacts. 
Although the African sculptors quickly discovered the interests of Europeans and began manufacturing masks for sale, these ''souvenirs'' did not appeal to the collectors’ taste. They simply did not have any of the traces of authentic ritual use that the masks should have, in order to be attractive in the European art market. 
Today, the traditional African mask lives a double life. While in the West it has found its place as an art object, it lives on in many parts of West Africa in its traditional role – although today’s mask dances are often linked to cultural festivals and tourism. Traditional African visual culture also continues to provide a great deal of inspiration in African contemporary art.  
The Poul Holm Olsen collection
The exhibition is showing a selection of African masks from Poul Holm Olsen’s collection of traditional African art, which numbers a total of 989 items. Poul Holm Olsen was a sculptor, and later a lecturer at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. After graduating in 1954, he received the French State Scholarship, which included a stay in Paris. There he began collecting traditional African art from the Parisian markets and art dealers, after which he undertook many travels – mainly to Paris, but also a single trip to Kenya, Nigeria and other countries in 1976. The majority of the collection was acquired between 1955 and 1980, and in 1977 Holm Olsen donated the entire collection to Holstebro Kunstmuseum.
The 52 masks come from a total of 28 different peoples. Via the screen, you can explore the universe of the masks and obtain information about the ritual contexts in which they have been used. You can also learn more about the cultures that underlie each of the masks.