Face mask (kifwebe) and costume

Songye or Luba 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 bifwede, whether male or female, are worn by male dancers who wear raffia costumes and are accompanied by singers and dancers. 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 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. Female masks are predominantly white, if they are painted at all. Whiteness connotes purity, health, fertility, procreation and nursing, joy, wisdom, and beauty, as well as moonlight, cassava flour, and sperm. Female masks participate in lunar, funerary, and investiture rites that encourage benevolent spirits to bestow fertility, the dead to enter the afterlife, and the peaceful transition of leadership. The female kifwebe's dancer's performance is gentle and graceful.

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.

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