TITLE: Lega Muminia Mask
TYPE: mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Congo, Democratic Republic of
ETHNICITY: Lega
DESCRIPTION: Muminia Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Bwami Society
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation; Secret Society; Status
AGE: ca. 1980s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin clay

The Lega people of the Democratic Republic of Congo use masks in a very wide variety of ways, but primarily for initiation into adulthood and to confirm status. The Bwami Society exercises authority over many aspects of social and religious life, including initiation.  All Lega masks are therefore Bwami Society masks. Small masks (lukwakongo) are used for identification and worn on the body or are hung on a fence to represent children of the ancestors. Larger masks, such as this muminia mask, are worn on the face or top of the head. The word muminia means “necessary for initiation” and is worn by both the lowest grade members of the Bwami Society and the two highest ranks (Yananio and Kindi).

For more on Lega masking traditions, see Daniel Biebuyck, Lega Culture: Art, Initiation, and Moral Philosophy among a Central African People (University of California Press, 1973).

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TITLE: Yombe Nganga Diphomba Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Congo, Dem. Rep. of
ETHNICITY: Kongo (Yombe)
DESCRIPTION: Female Nganga Diphomba (Diviner) Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Adult Initiation; Divination; Secret Society; Social Control
AGE: ca. 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin clay; pigment; glass

The Kongo (or Bakongo) is a populous nation historically inhabiting the west coast of central Africa, now confined to the southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Angola. The Kongo maintain an animistic religion based on ancestor cults and worship of the supreme god Nzambi. The Kongo people are divided into several subethnicities, including Beembe, Bwende, Vili, Sundi, and the makers of this mask, the Yombe.

The nganga diphomba, or diviner, plays an important role in Yombe society, detecting and punishing sorcery. Most major social ills are attributed to sorcery in Kongo cultures, including drought, crime, and accidents. The society of diviners wears two kinds of masks to identify and punish sorcerers, male (with a beard) and female (with a topknot). Both masks evoke ancestor spirits for the protection fo the diviner. With the mask, they paint their bodies and wear a skirt of turaco feathers and a belt of brass bells.  They use their own sorcery (kundu) to detect the culprit and counteract their curses.

Such masks may also be also used by the Khimba Society in adult initiation rituals, probably by the nganga diphomba himself.

For more on Kongo and Yombe masking traditions, see Marc Leo Felix ed., Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa, Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2018.

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TITLE: Kuba Lele Mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Congo, Dem. Rep. of
SUBREGION: Kasai River
ETHNICITY: Lele (Kuba)
DESCRIPTION: Helmet Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Celebration; Funeral; Secret Society; Status
AGE: ca. 1980s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: cotton cloth; cowrie shells; beads

The Lele people are a subgroup of the Kuba ethnic group of the Democratic Republic of Congo, inhabiting the Kasai River basin. They dance masked on many occasions, including festivals celebrating the mythical founding of the people and funerals of important individuals.  Lele masks have affinities with those of the Kuba people more generally, but they have a distinctive flattened face.  Cowrie shells and glass beads were valuable trade goods and their use denotes wealth and status.

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TITLE: Kuba Mukenga Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Congo, Dem. Rep. of
SUBREGION: Western Kasai
ETHNICITY: Kuba
DESCRIPTION: Mukenga Helmet Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Funeral; Secret Society; Status
AGE: ca. 1960s
MAIN MATERIAL: cloth
OTHER MATERIALS: wood; glass beads; cowrie shells; leopard fur; thread; plant fiber; metal plating

The Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo have several masks associated with royalty. The mukenga mask is associated with the highest status of the Babende initiation society through its invocation of the most powerful forest animals, the leopard and the elephant (note its trunk-like crest). Cowrie shells and glass beads were valuable trade goods and their use denotes wealth and status.

Mukenga masks are danced at funerals of titled nobility by members of the mukenga society. Because the mukenga masquerader has no vision (the helmet mask has no eye holes), attendants assist him to remain within the dance area. The mukenga dancer represents an important person visiting the village to pay respects to the deceased.

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TITLE: Chokwe Mwana Pwo
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Congo, Dem. Rep. of
ETHNICITY: Chokwe
DESCRIPTION: Mwana Pwo (Young Woman) Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Entertainment; Spirit Invocation
AGE: ca. 1980s-1990s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: string

The populous Chokwe people of Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia are known as some of the most skilled wood carvers in Africa. They resisted colonization far longer than most peoples of the region, despite repeated incursions by the Portuguese and other Europeans.

The Chokwe use masks in many contexts. The mwana pwo (young woman) mask invokes the spirit of a female ancestor in her most beautiful youth. The dark skin, decorative forehead and cheek scars, high forehead, narrow nose, and filed teeth represent the idealized Chokwe female. The mwana pwo is mostly danced for purposes for entertainment at festivals, but it is thought to increase the fertility of the women who attend.

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TITLE: Songye Kifwebe Kilume
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Democratic Republic of the Congo
ETHNICITY: Songye
DESCRIPTION: Bwadi Society Kifwebe Kilume Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Bwadi Bwa Kifwebe Society
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation; Secret Society; Social Control; Social Status; War Preparation
AGE: ca. 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin clay; animal hair

Among the Songye and Luba peoples of central Africa, the Bwadi Bwa Kifwebe Society commands high status, because its members are considered to have magical powers to invoke spirits. Among the masks used by the Kifwebe Society is the Kilume (male) mask here. Kilume masks are danced with a suit of mesh and a long mantle of raffia fiber. The masqueraders were used primarily to enforce social norms, to intimidate enemies in war, to attend male circumcisions, and at bukishi initiations teaching social and religious principles. Today, they exist primarily to preserve tradition and provide entertainment.

The dance of the male Kifwebe masquerader is erratic and energetic, reflecting the intimidating policing role played by this part of the Society.

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TITLE: Kwele Antelope
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Democratic Republic of Congo
ETHNICITY: Kwele
DESCRIPTION: Antelope Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Be’ete Society
AGE: 1990s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin clay

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 is more naturalistic than most Kwele antelope masks. More commonly, the masks are highly abstract, flat (plank-shaped), and with slit eyes.

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TITLE: Lega Idimu Mask
TYPE: mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Congo, Democratic Republic of
ETHNICITY: Lega
DESCRIPTION: Idimu Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Bwami Society
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation; Secret Society; Status
AGE: ca. 1990s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin clay

The Lega people of the Democratic Republic of Congo use masks in a very wide variety of ways, but primarily for initiation into adulthood and to confirm status. The Bwami Society exercises authority over many aspects of social and religious life, including initiation.  All Lega masks are therefore Bwami Society masks. Small masks (lukwakongo) are used for identification and worn on the body or are hung on a fence to represent children of the ancestors. Larger masks, such as this idimu (ancestor) mask, are worn on the face or back of the head, and can only be worn by men belonging to the two highest ranks of the Bwami Society (Yananio and Kindi).

For more on Lega masking traditions, see Daniel Biebuyck, Lega Culture: Art, Initiation, and Moral Philosophy among a Central African People (University of California Press, 1973).

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TITLE: Yaka Ndeemba Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Congo, Dem. Rep. of
ETHNICITY: Yaka
DESCRIPTION: Ndeemba N’khanda Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Makunda (N’khanda)
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation
AGE: ca. 1980s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: split cane; vegetable fiber; raffia; pigment

The Yaka people of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have a male initiation society known as Makunda or N’khanda, 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.

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

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TITLE: Kuba Bwoom
TYPE: crest mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Democratic Republic of Congo
ETHNICITY: Kuba
DESCRIPTION: Bwoom Crest Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Entertainment; Funeral; Status
AGE: 1990s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: copper sheet; cloth; cowrie shells; beads; plant fiber

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.

What the bwoom mask represents varies among Kuba storytellers. Some refer to it as a younger brother of the king, while others represent it as an outsider or commoner. The copper sheeting is a spiritual substance among many African peoples, and among some represents status or royalty. However, in Kuba society, only gilded metal is reserved for the nyimi.  As a force opposing the other two royal masks, bwoom must be content with copper.  The bwoom dance, unlike other royal dances, is energetic and exuberant.

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