Tell me more.
The masquerade character represented in this mask is Bwoom, one of three main figures in Kuba mythology. The other two are Woot (the first man and founder of the royal Kuba lineage), and Mweel, Woot’s sister and wife. Together, these masks perform to teach Kuba history and cultural values during public performances.
Bwoom has been described in several ways in the mythology: as Woot's younger brother, a commoner, and a subversive force in the royal court.
The Bwoom masquerade is performed at a variety of public events or ceremonies, including men's initiation or burial rites. During the performance, Woot and Mweel are engaged in a courtship dance and Bwoom interrupts, competing with Woot for Mweel’s affection.
Where are the Kuba from?
The Kuba are a group of interconnected Bantu-speaking people in the southeastern Congo region in central Africa. They are descendants of The Kuba Kingdom, which existed from the 17th century to the 19th century. The Kingdom bordered the Kasai river to the west, and the Sankuru River functioned as its northern border. Scholars have compared the Kuba Kingdom to highly centralized bureaucratic states such as Imperial Japan, Ancient Egyptian civilizations, and Augustan Rome.
How did this piece enter the collection?
This piece entered the collection as a gift of Mr. and Mrs. John McDonald. They got it from Anne Eisner, a realist revival American painter. Eisner exhibited her work widely during the 1930s, such as the 1939 World’s Fair, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Museum of Modern Art, among others.
Eisner relocated to the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1945 and lived on the edge of the Ituri forest with anthropologist Patrick Putnam, whom she eventually married. Eisner most likely collected the mask between 1945 and 1955 during her first extended stay.
What does the white band running directly under the eyes represent? It seems impractical for a real human being because it looks like it would obstruct the person's vision.
That's a great question! This mask is representing a mythical figure, Bwoom, one of three main figures in Kuba mythology, so the stripe doesn't necessarily have to have a practical function on a real human being.
The wearer of the mask would see out of two holes in the nostrils, rather than at the eyes.
As for what it represents, I can't find information on that at the moment. There are simpler versions of these masks as well, and this is a more decorated example, so that is probably part of it.
How often would this be worn, and what kind of ceremony would it be used for?
Kuba masks have traditionally been used to teach history and cultural values through performance. Princely dignitaries wear these masks several times a year, in processions and ceremonies performed at initiations and burial rites.
Wow. That is so interesting. I’m from Mexico where masks are also part of our culture.
So this mask was only worn by princely dignitaries and not by the general population?
From my understanding, it is only select Kuba individuals who enact the Bwoom masquerade. The role of the general public is to witness the spectacle.