Writing Art History Since 2002

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Dundo Museum, Angola


It was from a discussion on the appreciation, rescue, and preservation of “indigenous arts” that the Angola Diamond Company (Diamang) founded the Dundo Museum in 1936. The space was created with the private collection of José Redinha (1905-1983), who was an officer assigned to the Chitato outpost, a few kilometres from Dundo. Redinha was known for making “native people” portraits and collecting objects from the peoples of the region. The relationship between Redinha and the Dundo Museum began when his time at that outpost was coming to an end. His colleagues decided to honour him by promoting an exhibition of his works, and it was on this occasion that the Diamang General Director in Luanda, engineer Henrique Quirino da Fonseca, invited him to join the Angola Diamond Company in putting together a collection of objects to which he added his own collection which he handed over to Diamang.

While the basis for the creation of the Dundo Museum is the result of a collection from an employee of the colonial administration, the growth of its collection occurred in various ways. An example is the collaboration between Portuguese Diamang employees, who gave objects found in the diamond mining regions and other prospected areas to the museum. The majority of the collection however, came from the direct relationship with Lunda’s local populations, especially those areas under Diamang’s control.

The Dundo Museum was interested in showing the entirety of Luanda’s “indigenous life” in its galleries, which justified their endeavour to acquire the most varied types of objects from the local population, from those related to domestic life to objects related to the power of chiefs. To fulfill this objective, the museum invested in different strategies, of which three stand out: collection expeditions and campaigns; the acquisition of objects through recruited labourers (contratados); and negotiating with local chiefs. Over time, the museum expanded its collection of objects and came to acquire pieces from Lisbon and other parts of Europe, not necessarily related to the peoples of Lunda. This collection earned itself an exclusive room and had the goal of putting the Dundo Museum on a level close to that of the ethnological museums of Europe.


The acquisition of objects through collection campaigns 

From the beginning of the Dundo Museum’s operations, there was an effort to organise object-collection campaigns. According to their annual report, the museum had 496 objects in 1936. Despite the difficulties faced, such as the lack of physical and personnel infrastructure, the museum  counted 2,296 pieces the following year.1 In 1938, object collection continued for the museum. José Redinha went to the Sombo region and was able to collect approximately 700 objects. Although this number is smaller than the first large expedition, it was of great importance because it included many arms and power insignia from local chiefs, highly valued by the museum.2

Despite the frequent collection expeditions, the negotiations between the museum and the indigenous peoples to acquire objects are, in many cases, silenced in the documents. One of the exceptions is the Tchiboco Ethnographic Campaign which took place in 1946, stories of which were published by Diamang Cultural Services. In this two-volume publication, one can see the many tensions that occurred during these negotiations.

It is very plausible that the promise of a prominent place for the object in the museum was one of the resources used in the negotiation, contributing to people’s willingness to let go of their things. Symbolic issues were also in play and must have been widely used by the members of the team that negotiated with the local population.

On the other hand, it was also for symbolic reasons that people refused to give up their objects, as is the case with two doors acquired in Soba Chamuianza’s village during the Tchiboco Campaign. According to the story, it was not easy to acquire them because their owners were scared of leaving their houses doorless. For the peoples of the region, the absence of a door indicated a death. Having found someone dead, the first step was to remove the door from the house of the person who had passed away. It is impossible to know exactly which of the factors involved in the negotiations allowed the museum to keep the doors. The fact is that the spaces where the doors were, were covered with fabrics offered by the expedition team.3

In the 1950s, the museum had a new wave of campaigns to complete its ethnographic collections, which at the time contained more than 7,000 objects. The justification for doing these searches at the time was the “progressive extinction of indigenous art,” along with the fact that the majority of pieces that were being offered, given their poor quality, did not deserve to become part of the museum’s collection.4 However, the museum’s policy was that all the objects presented should be acquired, “therefore avoiding a situation in which the refusal to buy would weaken the spontaneity of offers from the indigenous peoples.”5

This was also the goal of the museum’s “development project” in 1957, spearheaded by Ernesto de Vilhena, Delegate-Administrator of the Angola Diamond Company. One of its central goals was the enrich the collections. This wave of collecting was certainly connected to the marked presence of Belgian researcher Marie-Louise Bastin, who spent a few months in 1956 at the museum conducting research on cokwe art. In addition to this was the threatening news that the painter Robert Verly was acquiring pieces in the region for the purpose of founding an ethnographic museum in Tchicapa, in what was then the Belgian Congo. The sense of urgency in collecting everything that was still available justified by the extinction of indigenous art was reinforced by the independence of the neighbouring Belgian Congo in 1960, fearing that the wave of independence would reach Angola.


Acquiring objects from recruited labourers (contratados)

Another strategy used by the museum was acquiring objects through recruited labourers that went through Dundo before being directed to the mines. Among these thousands of men there were some who in their villages played the roles of priests or masked dancers, among others, and who had objects that the museum wanted. In 1953 a dancer from Cacolo gave the museum his costume and its accompanying mask. It was a Catoio mask, rare for having been made of wood and not resin, which is more common. The dance belt that went with the mask was also acquired and rated one of the best by museum employees. The dancer was only able to negotiate to keep a few amulets from the belt.6

The case of the dancer who gave up his mask and its accessories was no exception. In 1952, the museum was able to acquire around 35 objects, almost all of which were brought from far away by Diamang workers. In 1957, the number of objects acquired from workers in the regions of Mona Quimbundo, Xá Cassau, Alto Chicapa, Minungo, Capenda, and Saurimo, in transit to Dundo, rose to 120.7 In 1963, at least 500 objects were acquired from workers.

It is not clear from the documents how these workers from distant regions got to Dundo with the pieces. It is highly likely that when recruiting these workers, they were told to bring everything that could be of interest to the museum. The recruitment process, extremely tense and marked many times by both physical and symbolic violence, did not give these workers much choice to decide not to cooperate.


The acquisition of objects through sobas

Local chiefs (sobas) also had an important role in putting together the Dundo Museum’s collection, whether as intermediaries or through negotiations for their  own personal objects. It is possible to say, however, that these men were quicker to give away objects that were not related to their powers (depictions of fauna or archeological objects), although they did let go of objects that were historically unique and they resisted their commodification, as is the case with power insignia.

We can consider that the dominating and subjugating characteristics of the colonial context were determinant in having these unique objects from the sobas enter into the commodification process. Nevertheless, it’s necessary to consider that in giving up their insignia to the museum, these chiefs were thinking about maintaining their own power, in this specific case, through the benefits and rewards that the act would bring them. Accordingly, these objects can be understood through reflections made by Marcel Mauss in The Gift: The Form and reason for exchange in Archaic Societies (2013),8 in which it becomes clear that the reciprocal relationships were part of a system where the obligation to give and to receive are connected, among other factors, to sealing alliances.

On a return visit to the Dundo Museum in 1946, Soba Muaquece from the Cassanguidi region brought a cikungu mask with him. This large resin mask represented the ancestors of the area chief Mwanangana, and could only be used by the area chief or by his sister’s son. Generally kept in a small hut (mutenji) in the middle of the forest on the outskirts of the village, this mask was only used in very specific situations. It could only be visited safely by other important chiefs or important men. Belgian researcher Marie-Louise Bastin even stated that “in the past, if one had a chance encounter with the cikungu, the person risked being decapitated on the spot by the sacrificial mask.”9

What would have brought the then soba Muaquece to offer such a mask, originally  kept in a restricted area, far from the eyes of most, to the museum? The act of giving up a cikungu mask could have been a response to the treatment he received during his first visit to the museum, because shortly afterwards he came back. In the same year (1946), Muaquece was also photographed by the museum, which was something highly desired by the sobas. It is possible that the mask was payment for having his portrait in the museum. The documents, however, suggest that Muaquece’s goal was much larger than simply paying them another visit and repaying the museum for the portrait. Arguing that he was a long-time Diamang ‘employee’ (“all of his people worked in the mines”), the soba had aspired to get a pension from the company a benefit given to few people, generally to long-time employees. It’s not a coincidence therefore that the “gift” offered to the museum by Muaquece fit with his request.

During its existence, Diamang tried to exploit the vulnerabilities of the power of the local chiefs and used various devices to keep these men on the company’s side, providing them with a resource much more precious to Diamang: labourers for the mines. The Dundo Museum also exploited this fragility using strategies that made this space into a great repository of the chiefs’ power, whether it be through their personal objects (mainly power insignia), or through their portraits, for which there was a gallery created in the mid-1940s in one of its rooms.

The portrait gallery of important sobas is quite enlightening when trying to understand the relationships between Diamang and the local chiefs. This display was connected with Diamang’s role in controlling the sobas and was indicative of the relationship between them and the company. The maintenance or removal of a portrait was determined by the relationship that was established between sobas and Diamang at any given point in time, above all when it came to providing labour. The physical removal of a portrait of one chief from the gallery was a direct consequence of his failure to comply with the agreed worker quota and constituted a severe symbolic sanction.10


The acquisition of pieces in Europe

If the Dundo Museum sought to unlock the entirety of “indigenous life” in Lunda, over the years the museum came to include other collections that involved objects from other parts of the African continent, not necessarily directly related to the peoples of the regions occupied by Diamang.

The Dundo Museum’s effort to expand its collections with pieces comparable to the ethnographic museums of large European cities is indicated by a clear increase in objects that the museum acquired over time, connected to an interest in internationalising its endeavours. Part of this process was organising exhibitions abroad. The first one, entitled ‘Professor Arthur Santos’ Folklore Mission in Luanda and Alto Zambeze: Photographic Documentation of the Mission’ occurred at Palácio da Foz in Portugal (1951). The second exhibition was in Rio de Janeiro, and was given the title ‘Angolan Musical Folklore (Alto Zambeze Region): Photography Exhibition.’ The first exhibition of objects from the Dundo Museum’s collection occurred in 1958 at the Casa de Portugal in Paris. An expanded version of ‘The Art of the Batshioko People of Angola’ took place in 1959 in Salvador, Bahia. ‘The Art of an Angolan People The Quiocos of Lunda’ took place during the 4th Luso-Brazilian Colloquium. In the 60s the museum continued organising similar expositions abroad, including one in Cologne, Germany (1961) and in Madrid and Barcelona (1962).

Dundo Museum’s ‘Africa’ or ‘African’ Room is one of the most significant examples of the expansion of their collections, and includes objects acquired from Lisbon and other parts of Europe. The business headquarters of the Angola Diamond Company in Lisbon used to buy pieces from various parts of the continent, including those from the Lunda region, and sent them to the Dundo Museum. According to José Osório de Oliveira, the idea was to “return to Africa,” pieces that were considered excellent, “many of them with signs of rarity that led us to believe that they might be the last of their kind.”11

While the Dundo Museum was focused “on the peoples of Lunda and their history,” as highlighted in its main room, there is no other justification for investing in these acquisitions except to make the museum a great symbol of the Diamond Company. There was a clear interest in trying to equate itself with the important ethnological museums of Europe, yet the Dundo Museum had an advantage that the museums in large European cities did not have: that of being able to use a discourse of benevolence toward the subjugated people, returning that which was taken from them. This way, the objects were returned to their continent of origin but at the same time, to a Portuguese institution, highlighting a peculiarity of the Dundo Museum in being the first space to “return (its pieces) to Africa.”

The financial investment in acquiring these objects was high and the museum, beginning towards the end of 1940s, did not stop acquiring pieces to send to Lunda, not even after the outbreak of the colonial wars in 1961. In the documents reviewed, demonstrations of pride around the collections were not rare. In a way, these exhibits also gained more importance, not simply because of the old age of the objects “collected in a time in which indigenous arts were at a higher level” but mainly for having been legitimised by Europe.

The map of the museum in 1957 confirms that the collections coming from Europe earned a large room opposite the ‘Honour’ or ‘Indigenous’ Room. In this same year, 726 objects were counted in the ‘Africa’ Room. In 1960, there were 871 pieces, some of which had already been excluded from the collection for being considered to have no artistic merit, even though they had already passed through the filter of Europe.

In contrast with the other rooms, the sombreness of the ‘Africa’ room suggests that, for having been considered authentic and from a time in which “indigenous arts were at a higher level,” these works eliminated any need for contextualisation, because the artistic merit that they held within themselves justified their presence in the space. When it comes to the works from the Lunda region that were kept in the other rooms, their importance was only recognisable if they were “reinserted” into their context or “environment,” even if fictitiously, inside of a museum.

On the other hand, this characteristic of the room can also suggest for whom the ‘Africa Room’ was designed and intended (visitors from abroad). At the same time, it was important for the company that local visitors recognised something of themselves through the rooms that would reconstruct the environment of Lunda’s peoples, In this way, the ‘Africa Room’ also seemed to be a “business card” for visitors from outside the continent, mainly from Europe and the United States.


A few final considerations

During the long civil war period in Angola (1975-2002), many objects disappeared from the Dundo Museum, along with documents fundamental to the memory of the institution. Recently the Sindika Dokolo Foundation has made an effort to acquire objects that originally belonged to the museum’s collection but that are currently dispersed among collectors.

Unlike the museum’s original movements in the 1940s to repatriate African pieces from Europe, today the Sindika Dokolo Foundation’s efforts to recover these pieces means recovering the memory, not only of the Dundo Museum itself, but also of Lunda’s peoples. Each piece given to the museum whether by a dancer, priest, soba, or recruited labourer has within it many stories and memories from the colonial time. Bringing these pieces together again in their birthplace means bringing many fragments of these individual and collective stories together, which in many cases were lost over time.


Juliana Ribeiro da Silva Bevilacqua is an independent researcher who specialises in African and Afro-Brazilian art. Her thesis entitled De caçadores a caça: Sobas, Diamang e o Museu do Dundo (University of São Paulo, 2016) focuses on the relations between local chiefs and the Museu do Dundo (1936-1961). She is the author of Homens de ferro. Os ferreiros na África Central no século XIX (São Paulo: Alameda; Fapesp, 2011) and co-author of África em Artes (São Paulo: Museu Afro Brasil, 2015). In 2015, she was guest editor of Critical Intervention: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture in an issue about Afro-Brazilian art.



  1. Dundo Museum Annual Report, 1937:3
  2. Dundo Museum Annual Report, 1938:25.
  3. Redinha, José. Campanha Etnográfica ao Tchiboco (Alto-Tchicapa). Notas de viagem. Lisboa: Serviços Culturais da Diamang, 1953. Publicações Culturais nº19.
  4. March 1951, Dundo Museum Report: 3.
  5. 1953 September, Dundo Museum Report.
  6. 1953 February, Dundo Museum Report: 1-2.
  7. 1957 January, Dundo Museum Report: 15-16.
  8. Mauss, Marcel. Ensaio sobe a Dádiva. São Paulo: Cosac Naif, 2013 (1st.ed. 1925).
  9. Bastin, Marie-Louise. Arte Decorativa Cokwe. Vol. II. Lisboa: Museu Antropológico da Universidade de Coimbra; Museu do Dundo, 2009. (1st.ed. 1961).
  10. Porto, Nuno. “Under the gaze of the ancestors – photographs and performance in colonial Angola”. In: Edwards, Elisabeth; Jhart, Janice (eds.). Photographs, Objects, Histories. Londres; Nova York: Routledge, 2004.
  11. Oliveira, José Osório de. Flagrantes da Vida na Lunda. Lisboa: Diamang; Serviços Culturais, 1958.


FEATURED IMAGE: Stan Douglas, A Luta Continua, 1974. Digital C-print mounted on Dibond aluminum, 128.3 × 128.3 × 6.3 cm. Image courtesy ofVictoria Miro Gallery London.

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