|A Kuba Mask
Bonnie E. Weston
|The Kuba live in the Lower Kasai region of central Zaire in a rich environment of dense forest and savanna.
Organized into a federation of chiefdoms, the almost 200,000 Kuba are a diverse group of over eighteen different
peoples unified under the Bushong king. They share a single economy and, to varying degrees, common cultural
and historical traditions. Agriculture is the main occupation, supplemented by hunting, fishing, and trading. The
name "Kuba" comes from the Luba people to the southeast. The Kuba call themselves "the children of Woot"—
after their founding ancestor (Vansina 1964:6;1078:4).
Praised as "God on Earth," the king, nyim, is a divine ruler who controls fertility and communicates with the creator,
Mboom. The royal court at Nsheng is a hierarchical complex of councils and titled officials who advise the king and
balance his power. Outlying Kuba chiefdoms are largely autonomous, organized on models analogous to those of
the capital but on a lesser scale (Vansina 1964:98-99; 1978:216). Kuba society parallels governmental
organization in that it is stratified. Yet the Kuba people prize hard work and achievement, and while position of birth
may secure advantage, it is not binding (Vansina 1964:188;1968:13,15).
Kuba religion, however, is not highly organized. The creator, Mfcoom, is recognized but is not formally worshiped.
More considera¬tion is given to Woot, who led the Kuba migration "up river" and established matrilineal descent,
male initiation, and kingship. Local nature spirits, tended by priests and priestesses, are actively involved in
people's lives, notably in matters of fertility, health, and hunting. The Kuba have no ancestor cult but do believe in
reincarnation (Vansina 1964:9-10).
Kuba arts primarily address status, prestige, and the court; they are manifestations of social and political hierarchy.
Rank and wealth are expressed in extensive displays of regalia: jewelry, rich garments of embroidered raffia cloth,
ceremonial knives, swords, drums, and elaborated utilitarian items. Valuable imported cowrie shells and beads
emblellish garments, furniture, baskets, and masks.
The outstanding Kuba style diagnostic is geometric patterning used to embellish the surfaces of many objects.
These designs are woven into raffia textiles and mats, plaited in walls, executed in shell and bead decoration, and
incised on bowls, cups, boxes, pipes, staffs, and other forms including masks. All art forms and designs are laden
with symbolic and iconographic meaning, and the same is true of the rich Kuba masquerades.
Masking was first introduced by a woman who carved a face on a calabash, the original model for initiation masks.
The invention was taken over by men, incorporated into initiation, and remains a male privilege. Once Bushong
boys move into the nkan initiation shelter, they can wear masks and make excursions into the village frightening
women and small children. More powerful masks are worn by initiation officials. The masked Kuba dancer is, in
every instance, a spirit manifestation (Torday 1910:250; Vansina 1955:140).
Three royal mask types exist: the tailored Mwaash aMbooy, representing Woot and the king; the wooden face
mask, Ngady Mwaash aMbooy, the incestuous sister-wife of Woot; and the wooden helmet mask, Bwoom ,the
commoner. These characters appear in a variety of contexts including public ceremonies, rites involving the king,
and initiations. Although their dances are generally solo, together the three royal masks reenact Kuba myths of
origin (Cornet 1982:254,256; Roy 1979:170).
Bwoom is a wooden helmet mask elucidated by varied oral traditions. The Kuba feel that one " 'understands' the
why of something if one knows how it 'began'; something is known if it is explained" (Vansina 1978:15). Thus
Bwoom is the spirit first seen by nkan initiates; he is a hydrocephalic prince, a commoner, a pygmy, or one who
opposes the king's authority. Two traditions trace Bwoom's origin to the reign of King Miko mi-Mbul, who had gone
mad after killing the children of his precedessor. Although he finally became sane, Miko would lapse into madness
each time he wore Mwaash aMbooy, the most important royal mask and until then the only one worn by the king
himself. A pygmy offered the king Bwoom as an alternative. Suffering no ill effects with the new mask, Miko
accepted it. A less dramatic version is that Miko, known as a great dancer, was simply seduced by the pygmy's
creation and adopted it despite its humble character. In both cases the King is credited with improvements to the
mask that justify its inclusion in the royal repertoire (Cornet 1982:269).
As inconsistent as they may seem, each account expresses an aspect of the mask or its character. The
identification of Bwoom as a pygmy or a hydrocephalic man is often cited to explain the mask's enlarged forehead
and broad nose. Bwoom appears in initiation and is always considered a spirit. The lowly origin of the character is
reflected in its description: "a person of low standing scarcely worthy of being embodied by the king" (Cornet 1975:
89) and conversely in its defiant performance opposite the regal Mwaash aMbooy. The two may act out a
competition for the affections of the one female in the royal mask trio, Ngady mwaash aMbooy (Cornet 1982:255).
Mwaash aM-booy's dance is calm and stately, while Bwoom acts with pride and aggression (Cornet 1982:255). The
masks are easily differentiated by material, for Bwoom is carved from a single piece of wood and Mwaash aMbooy
is made from cloth and raffia textiles.
Bwoom appears on the nkan "initiation fence" of the Bushong (Vansina 1955:150-151) and in other initiation
contexts. Little is known of this mask (or indeed most Kuba arts) outside of the royal Nsheng tradition.
A royal mask, Bwoom is sometimes worn by the king. Yet unlike Mwaash aMbooy, Bwoom does not appear at
funerals, and it is never interred with the king or other dignitaries (Cornet 1982:270). The costume is similar to that
of Mwaash aMbooy: heavy with profuse layers of raffia-cloth, bead and cowrie decoration, leopard skins, anklets,
armlets, and fresh leaves. Eagle feathers or other prestigious media are added to the crown of the head when the
mask is danced.
Despite regional variations, the Bwoom mask conforms to a distinct type. All styles feature strongly rendered
proportions dominated by an enlarged brow, broad nose, and usually naturalistic ears. Typical features include the
metal work on the forehead, cheeks, and mouth, bands of beads that embellish the face, and an expanse of
beadwork at the temples and back of the head. Plate 8 has these plus patterned raffia-cloth covering the top of the
head, with a fringe of hair. The blue beads set into the white band at the temples imitate ethnic tattoo patterns
(Cornet 1982:266), and the design at the back of the head is one associated with royalty.
|Other examples for reference purposes
|Sotheby's - New York
African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art
Auction Date : Nov 11, 2004
Lot 108 : A FINE KUBA MASK
ngaady amwash, of hollowed oval form and carved from lightweight wood, the rounded chin and ovoid
mouth beneath the prominent nose with flaring nostrils framed by large, coffee-bean eyes and high
cheekbones above multiple piercings; aged surface; the whole decorated with geometric designs in red,
black and white pigment.
height 9 1/2 in. 24cm
$ 15,000 - $ 25,000
PROPERTY FROM A EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Edmund Dene (E. D.) Morel, England, before 1900
Edmund Dene (E. D.) Morel (1873-1924) was a British journalist who became a major activist on behalf
of trade reform in the Congo. In 1900, he published a series of articles concerning the Congo. Later, he
published Le Congo Leopoldien with the French explorer Pierre Mille, and was editor of the African Mail
for ten years before bringing out his own paper The West African Mail in 1903. In 1904, he founded the
Congo Reform Association and travelled to the United States to create a similar movement.
|Photo source - Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
There are a LOT of great Kuba masquerade photos in the archives
|Examples be,low for reference
purposes only - they are not in my