Through African Eyes: The European in African Art,
1500–Present




Strangers and Spirits:
Histories passed down through generations of Africans tell of various reactions to first meetings with Europeans. The arrival of the Portuguese around 1450 created a sensation.

In many African cultures, whiteness is traditionally associated with the supernatural and spirits. African sculptures with white pigment surfaces are instantly recognized by Africans as representing spirits. With their pale skin, the Portuguese were first thought to be supernatural beings.

This sculpture represents an ancestor spirit. It was used as a grave marker and it functioned as a mediator between the living and the dead. The figure has filed teeth characteristic of Yombe peoples but wears European-style clothes.


Kongo culture (Yombe), Democratic Republic of Congo, Ancestor Figure, 19th-Century. Wood and pigment. Rietberg Museum, Zurich.
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