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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Kuba Masks : Kuba Wooden Mask
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Kuba Wooden Mask - PF.3089 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Congo
Circa: 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 13.5" (34.3cm) high x 8" (20.3cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Mixed Media


Location: United States
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Description
This austere mask was made by the Kuba, a tribal division of the Bushoong group in Gabon and what was once Zaire. It is highly distinctive. It is essentially triangular in form, surrounded by a textile, bead and cowrie-shell border with additional tufts of dark and pale hair around the outline of the chin. The wood is very dark and glossy, presumably through use patination. The face is simplified, with cowrie-shell-shaped eyes (cowries were associated with wealth and were regularly copied into wooden pieces), an inverted T-bar nose and a small, open mouth connected to the nose via a raised “septum” ridge. In this sense the face is rather like Dan masks from the Ivory Coast, but the sculptor has added further detail that settles it firmly in the Kuba group. Specifically, this involves an immensely ornate series of forehead and under-eye wrinkles that lend the mask a somewhat lugubrious expression, and perhaps reflect advanced age. This would be appropriate in a society based upon gerontocracy, as this mask is clearly an elite item.

The Kuba are a large tribe comprised of various smaller entities including the Bushoong, Ngeende, Kete, Lele, Binji, Dengese, Mbuun and Wongo peoples. They are quasi-autonomous within the Kuba polity but are related genetically and artistically. Their social systems are hereditary monarchies headed by the “Mushenge” (Nyim), who is responsible for the spiritual and material wealth of his people; each of the subgroups was represented by an elder who sat on a royal council. The kingdom was founded in the early 17th century by a major leader named Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam who united disparate groups under his authority. The resulting entity became highly productive and exploited trade networks through the area, becoming very wealthy in the process. This led to an increased artistic oeuvre and ever more elaborate royal regalia and statuary. Their religion was based upon a creator god named MBoom, while more immediate concerns were the province of a being named Woot who was involved with more tangible issues; the Kuba are also known as the Children of Woot. While not impacted upon by slavery, their kingdom fell to the Nsapo people in the 19th century, and was eventually subsumed into the Belgian Empire.

Artistically, the Kuba are highly prolific. Their art is often extremely ornate and decorated with cowrie shells and geometric and meandriform linear motifs. Their large wood sculptures have an apotropaic function. Much Kuba art is decorated with Tukula – bright red ground camwood powder (called twool by the Kuba), which has a symbolic significance for the group. In addition to the beautifully-rendered court art such as the Ndop statues – which represent kings – they have a habit of decorating utilitarian objects to such an extent that they have been described as a people who cannot bear to leave a surface without ornament. They are perhaps best known for their boxes (ngedi mu ntey) and palm wine cups. These items were used as markers of status in the late 19th century, and the quality of their rendering was used as a bargaining chip when attempting to gain royal favour or influence.

Good Kuba masks are a rarity. This beautiful example would be a prestigious and beautiful addition to any serious collection of African art.

- (PF.3089 (LSO))

 

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