This startling mask is one of the rarest forms made by the Lulua, one of the Congo’s most understudied social groups. It is a remarkable piece, based around a tall, domed head with straight sides and an acutely pointed chin. The face is dominated by very large eyes, each of which is “blind” but pierced with numerous tiny holes, lending a vaguely insect-like appearance. The nose is short and snubbed, the mouth in the coffee-bean format and the forehead adorned with a central crest that ties in with the arched brows. The edge of the mask is surrounded by holes that are tied with twine and which would presumably have been tied to a textile hood and costume.
The Lulua (or Bena-Lulua) are a small, caste-based tribal group living in the Southern Congo, where they migrated in the 18th century. They are governed as a series of semi-independent micro-states that come together under a single chief in times of social strife. Their society underwent major transformations in the late 19th century due to the efforts of a reformative king named Kalambam; for our purposes, he ordered the burning of “cult” carvings, so old Lulua pieces are somewhat rarer than might otherwise have been suspected. Secular objects were unaffected, so pipes, neck-rests and the like are not uncommon. Figures are usually very ornately decorated with scarifications, long necks and often a spike arrangement atop the head. The few known masks are associated with funerary and circumcision rituals, and while they vary considerably, they usually have large eyes and complex scarifications.
Intuitively, one should imagine the social effect of masks, in their original contexts. While fairly unthreatening in its current metier, one can imagine the effect it might have had on susceptible adolescent boys as it loomed out of the darkness on the night of their circumcision. This is a rare and exceptional piece of African art.
- (PF.3882 (LSO))