Forehead mask (mbuya type)

Central Pende peoples
c. 1930s
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General Description

In the distant past when this mask was carved, Pende masks were considered as mahamba, or tools or transistors facilitating contact between the living and the world of the dead. They were worn in the contexts of the healing rituals called mukanda, the period of seclusion in a "bush school" or forest encampment where pubescent boys were circumcised and initiated into adulthood and in the public masquerades that celebrated the boys' achievement and their return to normal village life as full-fledged adults. Certain masks were reserved exclusively for the mukanda while mbuya, or village masks, appeared to the general population.

This mask is carved in a form that appears to be a face mask. However, it is not a face mask because it does not have open eyes that would allow visibility to the outside. It is a type of Pende mask that is worn on the dancer's forehead in the mudiji malamba position (that is, "halfway between horizontal and vertical" or "facing the sky/sun"). Its facial features—bulging forehead, arched brows, angular hooded eyes, turned-up nose, and mouth rising in the middle at an acute angle—offer clues to its identity. Without its complete costume it is impossible to be sure, but these characteristics suggest that this is a "hyper male" called Pota, one of the oldest mbuya mask types. Its face is meant to terrify and hypnotize.

Mbuya masks appear in public masquerades and represent a variety of characters, such as the clown, the hunter, the judge, the chief, the chief's wife, the diviner, and the woman who flirts, among others. Each character has a distinct costume and accessories and its own dance steps and drumming rhythms. Mbuya masquerades entertain while teaching the Pende which behaviors to emulate and which ones to avoid. In a society that values peace and moderation, Pota is not a good role model.

Masking, especially in the context of the mukanda, began to wane during the 1930s under Belgian colonial pressures and the substitution of midwives for the traditional circumcisers. Most of what is known about masking in the old days in found in the published research of Léon de Sousberghe, a Belgian Jesuit anthropologist, who studied Pende visual arts in the 1950s. Zöe Strother, an American art historian, did field work on Pende masking during the 1980s and found that, although the traditional mukanda was no longer held, masking was flourishing. Sculptors had invented new mask characters to be worn in masquerades that were for pure entertainment.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, African Masks: The Art of Disguise, Label text, 2010.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2007.

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