Mukenga Mask

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Mukenga Mask

The Mukenga Mask was created in Zaire in late nineteenth century and was very important to the Kuba people.  It was the element of power and was worn in ceremonies by Kuba’s king.  The mask stood for the Kuba hero Woot who was considered to be the creator of the world.  Kuba people believed in being the children of Woot, the original leader and founder of aristocratic line.  The mask was covered with the skin of leopard, ruff of a monkey, and feathers of the red parrot.  The eyes represented a chameleon and the trunk represented elephant’s power. The mask itself was made of wood, cowry shells, beads, raffia cloth and fiber.  Mukenga mask is a copy of Mwaash mask made in the sixteenth century by people in the eastern part of the Kuba, nevertheless, it has become the most important element in understanding the culture and beliefs of Kuba people.

Kuba people today

Today the Kuba population lives in the central Congo, the area with dense forest and savannah plaints.  Kuba people represent a diverse group who share a single economy even though being loosely unified under a king.  Nevertheless, all of the eighteen chiefdom states have common cultural traditions (Hahner et al. 2007, 203).  One of these traditions is related to Kuba masks.  These masks stand for the legendary heroes and display the beginning of the Kuba royal line.  Only the king is entitled to wear Kuba mask because it is believed that it sends appeals to the ancestors.  Mbooy mask represents the kings subsequent to Woot; Ngaady aMbooy mask represents a wife of Woot; the wooden mask Mboom represents the commoner who attempted to lure a wife of Woot (Hahner et al. 2007, 209).  Mbooy mask is owned by the Kuba king who has to wear it during ceremonies as a demonstration of his dynastic legitimacy to be a king. 

The superstructure of the mask

The Mukenga Mask has an elephant’s trunk on the top and surmounts with the raffia fiber.  Traditionally, it could be worn by a male who was a member of the royal family.  The trunk of the elephant is an emblem of royalty and symbolizes the power of the elephant, and, as a result, the power of the king.  The Mukenga Mask is covered with the cowry shells and beads.  Shells and beads were the elements of trade in Kuba society and since the ancient time indicated wealth and prestige (Visona et al. 2007, 329).  Shells and beads were used to embellish baskets, furniture, and garments.  Just as several centuries ago, today the Mukenga Mask stands for the hard work and achievement, as well as for the important of position of birth (Visona et al. 2007, 331) . 

The History of Mukenga Mask

According to the ancient Kuba proverb, there is no animal, even if it is large, who can surpass an elephant, as well as there is no man, even if has authority, who can surpass a king (Gillon 1991, 117).  That is why an elephant is associated with the royal might and symbolizes power, wealth, and fertility.  Status, court, and prestige are the manifestations of political hierarchy; rank is expressed in jewelry, garments of raffia cloth, and ceremonial drums.  Notably, masking was introduced by a woman who covered here face on a calabash; while today, the mask is considered to the male privilege only (Phillips 1999, 462).  Very little is known about the Kuba art, nevertheless, the myths behind the history of masks have been preserved till the present day.  For example, the Bwoom mask symbolizes the origin of the world, “to understand why something occurs, the one has to know how it began, everything is known if it is explained” (Gillon 1991, 121). 

The role of masks

There are three masks important to Kuba society:  Mbooy mask, Mboom
Ngaady, and aMbooy.  Each mask is made of the distinct material.  For example, Bwoom is made out of a single piece of wood, while Mbooy is created from cloth and raffia.  In addition, each mask serves its own purpose – Bwoom is never used at the funerals, while aMbooy mask in never interred with the king (Willett 2002, 59).  Mukenga mask, though, is a non-royal mask and is characterized by a trunk and two small tusks.  It is traditionally used during the funerals of Kuba aristocrats (Bacquart 2002, 47), even though it is decorated in greater splendor compared to the royal mask Mbooy.  

Just as many generations ago, Kuba people follow the traditional rituals and value their historical heritage.  Masks play important role because they tell the story of creation.  Similar to the Biblical story of creation, Kuba masks inform the world about the origins of Kuba nation.  Despite of the opposing purposes served by the masks, each of them stands for the social group of Kuba (aristocrats, women, and commoners).  Mukenga mask, being the richest in materials and symbolic meaning, is of the greatest interest to the modern art appreciators because of the material splendor and cultural importance.  


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