Helmet mask (mukenga)
- Kuba peoples
- mid–20th century
Among the Kuba peoples, as among most traditional African societies, the scale and duration of a funeral—from short and simple to days long and complex—is commensurate with the prominence of the deceased person during life. Masks with elephantine features appear at funerals of elders who were high-ranking members of a men's secret initiation society. The masquerader performs a dance in honor of the deceased who, although not a Bushoong, belonged to a particular aristocratic clan.
These masks represent the royal ancestors of the Bushoong, the ruling group within the Kuba kingdom founded in the 17th century. According to one version of the founding myth, Woot was the first man and the first king of the Kuba. Weel was his sister and wife, and Bwoon was his brother and rival. In the masquerade—part of public ceremonies, initiations, as well as royal funerals—dancers disguised as Mukenga (Woot), Ngaady aMwaash (Weel), and Bwoom reenact the mythical origins of the Bushoong dynasty and its right to rule the Kuba peoples.
The conical projection extending upward and over the front of this mask represents an elephant's trunk, and the small beaded panels at either side are its tusks. The product of labor-intensive craftsmanship, the mask is lavishly adorned with valuable cowrie shells, imported beads arranged in complex patterns, and the red tail feathers of an African gray parrot. All these elements are symbols of wealth, title, and elite status. In Kuba society, ownership and control of elephant ivory rests with the king.
The white cowrie shells, which were used as currency before coins and paper money were introduced, evoke death and signify mourning and ancestors' dry bones. Unlike most masks that cover the entire head, Mukenga does not have eyeholes. Sighted attendants accompany the dancer wearing the "blind mask" as he performs ancient steps with pride, gravity, and dignity.
Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.
Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 188-189.
- African Masks: The Art of Disguise
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