Between the visible and the invisible

by Filipa Duarte de Almeida

When a nganga applies make-up, he gradually disappears to leave room for his mukuku.  With each line he draws, white, red, black, the man ceases to be man and becomes spirit, ancestor, mythical hero.  The body then becomes a conduit for the manifestation of the invisible.  An ephemeral aesthetic existing only for a single precise moment but that paradoxically represents the permament, the eternal, and the infinite.

 

In the light of this spiritual thought, each one of these photographs transforms the supernatural into the material. And when the invisible becomes visible through the image revealed here, the imaginary that inhabits the Bwété becomes concrete. Far from this logic, far from this world where space is morphing and time is abolished, there, in the bush, between the smoke and dust kicked up by the nganga who dances to the rhythm of the drums, it is up to each one of us to choose our position with respect to these images: in front of or behind the walls of Senghor.

Stéphane Bailby encountered the Bwété during a trip to Gabon in 2009.

Initiated into the spirituality, the philosophy, and the practice of this ancestral cult inherited from early man, he returned to the village of Bolokobwé on subsequent trips. 

During a ceremonial watch, he met Filipa, a historian of African arts and religion, who had come there during a research trip in 2012 and never left.

In the Spring of 2016, he was granted an exceptional permission to create portraits of the nganga in their sacred costumes and makeup, in the incarnation of their Mukuku.

The portraits were shot in the village of Bolokobwé among the nganga-a-missôkô and later in the village of Okalassi among the nganga-a-disumba.

«One has to be initiated, be blessed with these internal eyes that, like an image, break through the walls.» — Léopold Sédar Senghor

Bwété:

An initiatory society that presupposes the possibility of establishing connections between man, spirits and ancestors.

 

Nganga:

An individual who has been initiated into Bwété. An intermediary between the two worlds, the visible and the invisible.

Mukuku:

Ancestor. A spirit who accompanies each nganga and who reveals himself to him on the day of his initiation.