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Bringing Africa to Aratoi

Collector Desmond Bovey unpacking minkisi before the exhibition opens at Aratoi. PHOTO/CAL ROBERTS

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Aratoi’s latest exhibition is not art for art’s sake.

From Friday, a rare glimpse into Africa comes to Wairarapa’s museum of art and history via Minkisi – Art and Belief in West and Central Africa.

Desmond Bovey has spent the past few decades collecting minkisi – statues, masks or vessels imbued with a spirit, made by the Bakongo people who live at the mouth of Africa’s Congo River.

“All these objects have a spiritual significance, they’re not just objects,” Bovey said.

The objects acted as an interface between the worlds of ancestors and spirits. However, they were abandoned or sold when they were deemed to have lost their power and outlived their use.

Paul Le Lay, Bovey’s father-in-law, began collecting minkisi while working in Africa from 1946 to 1959.

Le Lay was a colourful character, who had a touch of Ernest Hemingway about him.

Minkisi ancestral figure from the Fang people, of Gabon. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

“He wrote a bit of poetry, he painted, his collection was a bit eclectic.”

Bovey inherited Le Lay’s collection, which had been gathering dust in an attic in Burgundy, France, for decades.

“It’s a funny story, I only got them because no one wanted them.”

He was intrigued by the artefacts and was inspired to travel to Africa for the first time in the late 90s, in search of more objects.

“My first one or two trips to Africa were useless,” he said.

Bovey was unable to delve deeper than the regular tourist spots in Africa. As a result, he began to network, making friends and coming back to them, building a trusting relationship each time he travelled.

Eventually, his friends would take him deep into the jungle to witness rituals and meet village elders.

“It was always a little scary, but it was also exciting you know.”

Skills developed while hunting in the New Zealand bush in his youth returned to him when he headed into the African forest.

“Here, one might step on a bush viper, or brush against a green mamba, or stumble over armies of ants. There was even the slight possibility of meeting a panther.”

He said African culture was sophisticated in its thought which was reflected in art and objects like minkisi.

“There’s a lot we can learn from it.”

Bovey was hard-pressed to find a piece he admired most.

“They’re a bit like having lots of kids – you love them all differently.”

Minkisi mask from the Igbo people, Nigeria.

With minkisi, Bovey said their status was tied to their use, rather than the age of the item.

“It’s a question I get all the time, ‘How old, how old?’.

“It’s not really about age.

“Anything from the start of the 20th century is considered quite old, and in Africa things decay quickly, with termites and humidity.”

Born in Whanganui, Bovey moved to France in 1982, where he worked as an illustrator.

Accompanying Bovey’s collection for the first time are his sketch books full of minkisi studies – which are works of art in their own right.

Bovey has not returned to the Congo for eight years, saying the days of expanding the collection were behind him.

“That kind of madness had to stop,” Bovey said. “I’ve done my dash.”

Aratoi director Susanna Shadbolt said the exhibition featured art from a “part of the world that many of us know little about”.

There was much to experience and Aratoi welcomed everyone in Wairarapa to step inside and enjoy the journey to Africa.

Minkisi – Art and Belief in West and Central Africa opens Friday 5.30pm at Aratoi and runs until November 25.


  1. Hi.. I was a good friend of Desmond Bovey late sister Brenda and knew his family and Des when he was a young man .
    Other than Facebook I can find no other way to try contact him with a short message to say I still think of his beautiful sister Brenda often.
    Can you help or pass this on.
    My name then was Joan Cudlipp and I lived in the Braeburn flats and worked with both Brenda and Judy. Many thanks for your time.

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