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Date: mid-20th century
Medium:Raffia, wood, cowrie shells, beads, parrot feathers, and goat hair
Geographic Location: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Dimensions: Overall: 33 1/2 x 22 x 26 in. (85.09 x 55.88 x 66.04 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, gift in honor of Peter Hanszen Lynch and Cristina Martha Frances Lynch
Object Number: 1998.11
This Mukenga, or helmet mask, from the Kuba (KOO-ba) peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a representation of one of the mythical ancestors of the Kuba’s ruling group, the Bushoong (BOO-shong). It is worn in the northern region of the Kuba kingdom by a dancer on ceremonial occasions, especially during funeral masquerades for important community elders. During these funerals, the masked figure dances blind because the mask is made without eye-holes. A sighted attendant guides the dancer.
In honor of the Kuba king (nyim) this mask, with its long, protruding trunk, resembles the elephant, an important royal symbol. It is meant to embody Woot, a supernatural being who is believed to have brought civilization to the Kuba peoples. Cowrie shells adorn the sides of the mask, and the red tail feathers capping its trunk, taken from the gray parrot, emphasize the opulence of the object.
This mask is made from materials with great significance to the Kuba (KOO-ba) peoples. The feathers on this mask were taken from the tail of the gray parrot. Ownership and control of these feathers was a privilege reserved for the Kuba king.
The cowrie shells, which cover part of the mask’s exterior, were used as currency by the Kuba peoples before the adoption of paper money. But cowrie shells have significance to Kuba viewers beyond their value as commodities. The shells are also symbols of mourning to the Kuba peoples.
Other materials which were used in making this mask include raffia, wood, and beads. Kuba mask-makers are widely celebrated for the kinds of complex geometrical patterns one sees on this mask.
This Mukenga, or helmet mask, represents Woot, one of the mythical ancestors of the Kuba’s ruling group, the Bushoong (BOO-shong). The mask is made without eye-holes, and therefore, the wearer of this mask is blind. He must dance a slow and ponderous dance accompanied by an attendant during the masquerade.
For the Kuba peoples, the duration of a funeral ceremony is commensurate with the importance of the deceased. This Mukenga was worn during the week-long funerals of important elders who were high-ranking members of a men’s secret initiation society.
The masquerade, in many African cultures, is a ceremony which allows people to commune with, learn from, and be entertained by the spirits and ancestors which remain invisible to them in their day-to-day lives. During the masquerade, males of a community (or, in a few rare cases, females) are inhabited by the spirit of the mask they wear. These spirits have a number of different personalities. Some are entertaining while others are threatening or solemn. Some are silly while others are serious and are used to educate children. The wearer of the mask is thought to become the mask’s spirit. Therefore, the identity of the person wearing a mask during a ceremony remains a secret.
Masks come in many different forms in order to represent many different spirits. The three main categories of spirits personified by these masks are:
Spirits Personified as Humans
Masks which take the form of a human face are used for a variety of reasons. Some are used to conjure the spirits of a community’s cultural heroes, while others are used to provide models of propriety and behavior for young girls, to teach young men about history and manhood at initiation ceremonies, or to represent strangers and foreigners to a community.
Spirits Personified as “Composite Beings”
Spirits which are composite beings show both human and animal features. These masks imbue their wearers with the positive qualities of both humans and animals. This mask, with its elephant-like trunk and abstracted human face is an example of a composite being.
Spirits Personified as Animals
Masks which represent animals are meant to imbue their wearers with the positive attributes of the animal they represent.
Masks are often made of perishable organic materials like wood, fur, and feathers. When masks are damaged beyond repair, sculptors create new ones, and the spirits of the discarded masks find a new home in their replacements.
The Kuba peoples settled in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the sixteenth century as a result of migrations from the north of several different ethnic groups. By the mid-nineteenth century, the kingdom had become an important commercial center trading textiles, ivory, and art. The Kuba kingdom is made up of approximately eighteen distinct ethnic groups, ruled by a nyim, or king, from the Bushoong group. The nyim’s advisory council of ritual specialists and titled men is responsible for administering the Kuba court system, which is one of the most sophisticated in Central Africa.
Today, most members of the Kuba community are farmers of maize or cassava, or they fish the Congo’s rivers.
The lavishly adorned elephant mask appears as funeral rituals for deceased members of the prestigious Mukenga society. Bushoong Village, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1981.
|Listen to curator Roslyn Walker describe this Mukenga, or helmet mask.|
|Learn about the Kuba peoples.|
|Watch curator Roslyn Walker discuss the materials and function of this mask.|
|Watch Curator Roslyn Walker discuss the myths associated with this mask.|
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.