TITLE: Yaka Kholuka
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Congo, Dem. Rep. of
ETHNICITY: Yaka
DESCRIPTION: Kholuka Makunda Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Makunda
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation
AGE: ca. 1980s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: split cane; cotton cloth; resin; raffia; natural pigments

The Yaka people of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have a male initiation society known as Makunda or Nkhaanda, which is charged with circumcising, hazing, and teaching boys to become a man (mainly, education in hunting and sex).  During the circumcision dance performances (kinkanda), the initiates wear special masks while their teachers alone are permitted to wear the ritual masks of the Makunda. After initiation, the boys are led out of seclusion and back into the community.  Before festivities can begin, the head teacher (kahyuudi or kayudi) commissions a carver (nkalaweeni or mvumbwa) to create a series of masks. Many types of masks are worn or danced in succession during the final initiation feast:

  • Kambaandzya (a raffia cloth domed helmet mask with a brim bisecting it; the mask is covered in black resin and painted with geometric designs in red, white, blue, and yellow)
  • Tsekedi (a leather or raffia cloth helmet mask with a white, human face and a series of horizontal discs on an inverted cone topping the helmet)
  • Mweelu (a helmet made of braided raffia fiber with large numbers of feathers; birdlike eyes in wood, gourd or bamboo; and a hornbill beak for a mouth)
  • Ndeemba (an abstract human face with bulging eyes carved of wood; many phallic rods come out of the helmet in all directions, including the inverted cone on the very top)
  • Kholuka (a polychrome human face with bulging eyes, and an open mouth showing the teeth, carved of wood; horizontal discs on an inverted cone come from the top, with bird feathers, and polychrome figures of humans or animals)

The kholuka, also known as a mbaala, is worn either by the leader of the initiation or the senior initiate.  It is the last danced, and it is danced alone to signal the end of the initiation ceremony. Unlike the other masked dances, which are entertaining to the audience, the kholuka creates a sense of unease due to the overtly sexual behavior of the dancer.

There are also masks not danced by initiates, known as Kakuungu. This mask is a large, long face mask with a distorted human-like face having bulbous chin, cheeks, and forehead.  It is thought to represent an ancestor and is danced by the herbal shaman to stop bleeding after the circumcision. Similarly, the mbawa, a mouthless helmet mask of raffia cloth over an ovular structure of split cane, with horn s to symbolize the pakasa buffalo, is not danced by initiates.

For more on Yaka masquerade, see Arthur P. Bourgeois, Art of the Yaka and Suku (1984).

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TITLE: Nafana Bedu Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Côte d’Ivoire
ETHNICITY: Nafana
DESCRIPTION: Female Bedu Association Female Plank Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Agriculture; Celebration; Funeral; Purification; Secret Society
AGE: ca. 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin; pigment

The Nafana people of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana have developed a Bedu Secret Society only in the last century. It is probably a successor to the Sakrobundi Secret Society banned by the British due to the Society’s function of violently punishing supposed sorcerers.  The Bedu society is charged with the less malignant function of village purification during a month-long new year’s celebration annually, as well as during harvest festivals and funerals.  The bedu itself represents a mythical ox-like beast that, in Nafana myth, cured a sick child and later disappeared into the bush.  Although these masks are worn over the face, their exceptional size requires them to be made of relatively light wood.

Bedu masks come in both genders, with the male masks having horns, and the female (such as this one) having a circle or disc on top. Most such masks of either gender are painted in kaolin clay with abstract geometrical patterns, checker marks and jagged fins being favored.  Sometimes red, blue, or black pigments are used as well.

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TITLE: Hemba Soko Mutu Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Democratic Republic of Congo
ETHNICITY: Hemba
DESCRIPTION: Soko Mutu (“Man’s Brother”) Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: funeral
AGE: 2000-2005
MAIN MATERIAL: hardwood
OTHER MATERIALS: N/A

The Hemba people of southeastern Congo are an agricultural group closely related to the Luba people. They live in ancestor-based clans headed by an elder (fuma mwalo) and organized by a secret society for men (Bukazanzi) and one for women (Bukibilo).

Among the east African peoples, masks rarely represent non-human primates, because the resemblances to human beings are considered unsettling. One important exception is the soko mutu (“man’s brother”) mask of the Hemba. The soko mutu represents a chimpanzee, and the raised eyebrows and wide, jagged mouth are intended to be fearsome.  The Hemba dance the soko mutu mask at funerals in order to symbolize the presence of death in the form of a chimpanzee spirit. Recently, some Hemba have begun calling the mask misi gwa so’o (chimpanzee spirit).

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TITLE: Bété N’gre Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Côte d’Ivoire
ETHNICITY: Bété
DESCRIPTION: N’gre Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Entertainment; Secret Society; Social Control; War Preparation
AGE: ca. 2000
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: iron tacks; kaolin; hardware; earth

The Bété people are closely related in ethnicity to their near neighbors, the We (Guere) and Dan peoples.  They live in the southwestern part of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast).  The Bété were historically hunters and warriors, but today they are primarily agrarian.  The Bété religion aims to harmonize the life of the people with nature and the ancestor spirits who oversee the welfare of the tribe.  Most Bété maintain their animist belief system.  Although they pray to a creator god, they routinely seek help through sacrifice of animals and eggs to supernatural spirits, including ancestor spirits, nature spirits, and animal spirits.

Each Bété ritual focuses on the maintenance and care of good relations with the world of ancestors, so as to assure the protection of the lineages. The religious cults give rise to numerous mask performances accompanied by music. The apprenticeship of male adolescents in dancing societies revolves around mastering the arts of musical instruments, song, and masked dance.

Bété societies have three classes of masks: kuduo masks are the rarest and most sacred, because they mediate between the living and the dead. Many villages have no kuduo masks, and none possesses more than one.

The most common type of Bété mask is the n’gre, which historically was used in a ceremony for restoring peace after a war, purifying the village of evil spirits, and presiding over dispute settlement and the punishment of wrongdoers. It is thought the mask was also used in war preparation dances to give the wearer magical protection and to terrorize potential enemies. N’gre masks can be made for dancing by adults or for training by young boys. Unlike masks in many other African societies, n’gre masks are not strictly controlled in morphology.  Considerable creative variation occurs among different mask makers. The mask on display here is an adult n’gre.

For more on Bété masked dances, see Armistead P. Rood, “Bété Masked Dance: A View from Within,” 2(3) African Arts 37-43, 76 (1969).

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TITLE: Pende Giphogo (Kipoko) Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Democratic Republic of the Congo
ETHNICITY: Eastern Pende
DESCRIPTION: Giphogo (Kipoko) Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Mukanda Ritual
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation; Protection; Purification; Social Control; Spirit Invocation; Status
AGE: ca. 1980s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: cloth; string; pigment

The Pende people have many different kinds of masks they wear, especially at adult initiation rituals. The giphogo (or kipoko) is one such mask.  The word giphogo means “sword wielder” and is a symbol of power among the Eastern Pende. The mask is kept in the chief’s home, and only chiefs are allowed to authorize dance with this type of mask on the occasion of initiations and rituals of the ancestor cult of the Eastern Pende. Its uses include protection from evil spirits; prayers or thanks for successful harvests and tribal fertility; to identify and punish sorcerers; and adult initiation during mukanda rituals.

The masquerader carries one or two flywhisks made of animal hair, which are used to mimic agricultural work or to purify the village grounds.

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TITLE: Kuba Face Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Democratic Republic of Congo
ETHNICITY: Kuba
DESCRIPTION: Face Mask of Unknown Type
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Entertainment; Funeral; Status
AGE: ca. 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: copper sheet; burlap; cowrie shells; plant fiber; feathers; hardware; string; pigment

The Kuba people inhabit the area south of the Kasai River.  Although the Kuba have some two dozen mask types, those still in use today are mostly the three royal masks, whose use is reserved to those given permission by the quasi-divine king (nyimi). These are danced mainly as a form of entertainment reinforcing the status of the royalty and at chiefly funerals.  The adult initiation (mukanda) masks are now rarely used in Kuba society. This specific mask is of an unknown type.

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TITLE: Kwele Helmet Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Gabon
ETHNICITY: Kwele
DESCRIPTION: Ekuk Helmet Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Be’ete Society
AGE: ca. 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin clay; pigment; raffia fiber

The Kwele, also known as Kwese, people of Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo now live between the Dja and Ivindo rivers. Social control is exercised by the Be’ete Secret Society, which uses masks to adult initiation rituals, funerals, and protection of the village from malicious spirits.  The masks embody protective bush spirits, with the antelope a dominant presence among them.  Kaolin clay is nearly always used in Kwele masks, because its white color has spiritual meaning to the Kwele.

This specific mask represents an ekuk, or forest spirit, of a lion.

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TITLE: Tiv Mami Wata Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Nigeria
ETHNICITY: Tiv
DESCRIPTION: Tiv Mami Wata Face Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Kwagh-hir
FUNCTION: Entertainment
AGE: ca. 1980s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint

The Tiv of Nigeria and Cameroon are a predominantly agrarian people that began adopting and transforming the masquerading traditions of neighboring peoples (including the Igbo and Yoruba) in the 1960s.  They now have an established masking tradition known as kwagh-hir (“wonderful thing”). Kwagh-hir is a form of communal entertainment in which masked characters portraying animals, people or supernatural spirits are used to tell stories.  It takes form either through wooden puppets or masked men.  Some masks are full body suits; others cover only the head or face.

Kwagh-hir are performed during the dry season in villages with sufficient resources.  Any man may take part under the instruction of a director (torkwagh-hir). The performance is announced by the blowing of a ram’s horn.  It is performed only at night, with women singing songs specifically for the masquerade. The first masked figure appears as a huge, raffia-covered animal that spins and dances, sweeping the stage area and raising a dust cloud. Masked spirits then follow individually.  One important spirit is the Mami Wata, represented here.  Mami Wata is a water goddess important to many northwest African cultures. She is sometimes represented by a mermaid but is nearly always surrounded by snakes, as here.

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TITLE: Makonde Lipiko Mask
TYPE: crest mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Tanzania
ETHNICITY: Makonde
DESCRIPTION: Lipiko
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Mapiko
USE: Adult Initiation; Funeral; Spirit Invocation
AGE: ca. 1960s-1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: natural pigment

The Makonde people inhabit the bordering region of Tanzania and Mozambique. They are a matrilineal society divided into clans governed by a chief and council. The Makonde are known as some of the most expert mask carvers in Africa, with two kinds of masks prevalent in their society.  This mask, known as a lipiko, is a helmet mask used primarily for the mapiko dance held at adult initiation rituals for boys and girls and at funerals. The masquerader channels the spirit of dead ancestors through the mask.  During initiation, boys and girls are both taught how to make the masks and perform them.  Women perform their initiation away from the males, who never see the masquerade.

This mask came from the Tanzania region of Makonde territory and was danced in the 1960s or 1970s.

For more on the Makonde mapiko ceremony, see Paolo Israel, In Step with the Times: Mapiko Masquerades of Mozambique (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press 2014).

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TITLE: Ekoi Ekpo Crest Mask
TYPE: crest mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Nigeria
ETHNICITY: Ekoi
DESCRIPTION: Ekpo Society Ancestor Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Ikem Ceremony
FUNCTION: Secret Society; Funeral
AGE: 1990s
MAIN MATERIALS: wood; antelope leather
OTHER MATERIALS: pigment; kaolin clay; wicker

The Ekoi people, also known as the Ejagham, inhabit the extreme southeastern region of Nigeria and parts of Cameroon. They are a hunting and farming people who live in scattered communities. Each community has a Ngbe or Ekpo (Leopard) Society that helps coordinate political and social events.

Most Ekoi masks take the form of a helmet or crest that sits atop the head. Unlike the masks of other African peoples, Ekoi masks are covered in antelope leather. In the distant past, the skin of killed slaves was used, but now antelope leather is common. Ancestor spirit masks such as these are used by the Ekpo Society, are worn at funerals and other secret society rituals. In the rituals, ceremonial plays known as Ikem (“sharing one heart and mind”) are performed to venerate the ancestors.  The mask is fixed to the dancer’s head and adorned with raffia fiber to hide the dancer’s face and body.

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