Desmond Bovey became interested in African art when he inherited 26 statues and masks that had been gathering dust in a Burgundy attic.

Decades later, that art will be on display at Minkisi, an exhibition featuring 100 powerful objects from 10 African countries, showing in Masterton.

Born and based in Whanganui, Bovey moved to France in the 1980s and visited Africa often.

"As soon as I stepped into the African forest I felt alive in a special way," Bovey said.


"All the skills of my youth, developed while hunting in the New Zealand bush, suddenly came back."

Instead of travelling from country to country, Bovey selected one small part of Africa to visit, which he continually returned to.

A mask from the Igbo people in Nigeria. Photo / Supplied
A mask from the Igbo people in Nigeria. Photo / Supplied

"I chose the region of Central-West Africa because it is French speaking, but also because it's such a patchwork of cultures," Bovey said.

"Africans are slow to trust Europeans, you can't blame them for that. In Africa you just have to put yourself in the hands of locals, otherwise nothing works, no doors open."

Minkisi is a word that refers to statues from Congo, in human or animal form. Minkisi contain a spirit that works for the good of an individual or group.

They work to bring good health, a good harvest, to increase fertility, to protect against theft, to act as a shield against witchcraft, or to prevent misfortune.

Minkisi are often adorned with feathers, padlocks, nails, rope, chains, bones, animal skin and skulls or hair.

Colour also has specific relevance: red suggests violence and magic, white connotes death, and black is the colour of life.


Bovey believes he is the guardian, not the owner, of the spiritual items.

"When I acquired these objects, they began to speak to me," he said.

"I became obsessed about what had shaped them, not only the aesthetic codes, but the beliefs."

• Minkisi is showing daily at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History in Masterton from August 25 to November 25. Admission is free.