This dark and impressive mask was made by the Pende of the Loango River area. The construction is very geometric, with sharp cheekbones, a horizontal forehead ridge, handlebar brows and an angular nose. The rather “droopy” eyes are characteristically Pende, as is the open mouth with fierce, sharp teeth. The mask is attached to a raffia cap which would have held it to the wearer’s face, and a line of holes along the inferior edge indicate that it was worn with a large textile costume. The mask is unpainted but has acquired a dark, glossy patina with age and use.
The Pende live in the Loango and Kasai River area in what was once Zaire, and are affiliated with the Yaka and Suku, with which they share a common origin (Angola). They are governed by a loose network of localised chiefs (Djigo) and what essentially amounts to a landed aristocracy. Social structures – and thus most of their artworks – are centred on age groups which are circumcised and enter adulthood together. The spiritual welfare of Pende communities is controlled by family heads (usually the eldest maternal uncle) and village diviners. Ancestor spirits (mvumbi) are either good or bad, determined by the manner in which the ancestor died, and can harm the family unless appeased and cared for by making offerings to a sculpture that commemorates them.
In terms of art, the Pende are divided into Eastern and Western groups, although these divisions are socially artificial and the Pende consider themselves to be a single people. A great deal of Pende art is regalia, including ivory mask pendants (Ikhoko) and staffs; secular items such as adzes, cups, whistles are also known, as are rare maternity sculptures. There are fifteen mask forms in the Western group, all of which are somewhat similar in possessing downcast eyes, protruding teeth and a triangular nose. They are perhaps best known for a mask called Mbangu, which represents someone suffering an epileptic fit. The current piece is a western Pende variant. The precise identity and purpose of the mask cannot be identified with certainty, but it is most likely to represent Phumbu – the murderer – a chief’s mask linked to the events involved in circumcision rituals and ceremonies.
This is a powerful and impressive piece of African art.