About this artwork
Formed in the seventeenth century, the Kuba Kingdom unites an ethnically diverse population across the Western Kasai region of today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. This mask, mukenga, is a regional variant of a Kuba royal mask that is made only in the northern part of the kingdom. The mask’s form and lavish embellishment are associated with wealth and status. Cowrie shells and glass beads, once highly valued imports, cover much of its surface. A stylized elephant trunk and tusks rise from the top, evoking the powerful animal and the wealth accrued by the Kuba in the nineteenth century through control of the ivory trade. The tuft of red parrot feathers that is suspended from the tip of the trunk and the fur of a spotted feline on the mask’s face are insignias of rank.
During the funerals of titled aristocrats, a member of the men’s initiation society may dance wearing the mukenga mask and an elaborate costume that includes many layers of woven raffia skirts and cowrie- and bead-laden belts, gloves, bracelets, and anklets. The deceased is laid out in identical attire, underscoring the association between the spirit, which is manifested through the performance of the mask, and the realm of the ancestors.
- Helmet Mask (Mukenga)
- Wood, glass beads, cowrie shells, feathers, raffia, fur, fabric, thread, and bells
- 57.5 × 24.1 × 20.3 cm (22 5/8 × 9 1/2 × 8 in.)
- Laura T. Magnuson Fund