Face mask (kifwebe)

Tempe-Songye peoples
late 19th–early 20th century
more object details

General Description

The striated masks of the Songye peoples are known as bifwebe (sing. kifwebe) and have sagittal crests that extend from the top of the head to the tip of the nose. The height of the sagittal crest indicates the gender of the mask, however, all Songye bifwebe, whether male or female, are worn by male dancers who wear raffia costumes and are accompanied by singers and dancers. The sagittal crest of the male bifwebe can reach dramatic heights. The height of the crest is directly related to the strength of the mask's character: the larger the crest, the greater the mask's mystical knowledge and magical power. Bifwebe, which have rarely been documented in situ, function within the context of the Bwadi Bwa Kifwebe, a men's secret association that assures the well-being and continuity of its communities by enforcing societal laws and appealing to benevolent spirits. The male mask's crest and overall size also indicate achievement levels within the secret society; for example, the progression from youth to elder.

The striations on both male and female masks, which are a unique stylistic trait of all Songye masks, are derived from the markings and patterns of wild and dangerous animals, such as the zebra or striped antelope, crocodile, lion, porcupine, and snake. Bifwebe may be painted black, white, and red. The colors of black and white, however, refer to gender. Black is associated with masculinity. On male bifwebe, black signifies malevolence, aggression, violence, and evil magic, which are reinforced in the masked dancer's aggressive and energetic performance. Aggressive male masks supervise road and fieldwork and participate in policing activities during crises, initiations of male youths into adulthood, and preparation for warfare. Although their forms, patterns, colors, and behaviors are inspired by and derived from human beings and animals, bifwebe are supports for supernatural beings.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 172-175.