According to David A. Binkley (2009: 7), "Kuba arts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have sparked the imagination of European and American observers for well over one hundred years. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, missionaries, explorers, and ethnographers characterized the Kuba as an aristocratic and artistically creative people whose political, economic, cultural, and artistic development was the most advanced in Central Africa, comparing it to pharaonic Egypt, to Augustan Rome, and to imperial Japan as they collected Kuba arts for museums in Europe and America." This great reputation is despite the great scarcity of Kuba figural sculpture, often considered to be the apex of any civilization’s visual culture. Aside from the celebrated royal ndop statues which memorialize Kuba kings, there is almost no tradition of anthropomorphic statuary in Kuba art.
On the basis of its style, the mask can be attributed to the Kete, a Southern Kuba group. The head is similar in form to the rare mulwalwa masks of that group: see for example the mask acquired in 1910 by the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (fig. 2). Cornet (in Phillips 1995: 280) notes: “The Kuba kingdom was divided between three large peoples, the Bushoong (the royal tribe), the Ngende and the Ngongo, who were surrounded by about fifteen smaller (sometimes very small) groups. Of these, the Kete were the largest, but also the farthest from the royal centre of the kingdom.” The southern part of the Kuba Empire, bordering with the Luluwa, is populated by the Northern Kete, and also Bushoong, Pyaang, Bulungu, and Cwa peoples. As Binkley (1993: 45) notes, “The Northern Kete are not a homogenous grouping. Some Northern Kete together with Cwa (Pygmies) are the original inhabitants of the region, living in the area before the arrival of Kuba-affiliated groups.” Regarding the specificity of the Northern Kete designation, he continues (ibid.: 49, footnote 5): “The similarities between these Northern Kete and Southern Bushoong are so striking, especially as it concerns initiation rites and mask-making, that the term ‘Southern Kuba’ has been adopted.”
According to Binkley (1993: 45-46): “Northern Kete masquerade figures fabricated during initiation rituals (buadi) display a body of characterizations which promote the dominant values of the institution. Initiation masks articulate and reinforce the role and status of the novices undergoing the rite vis-à-vis the uninitiated. Masks represent the power of secret knowledge and the authority of Kete elders. […] Initiation rituals for boys and young men (buadi) occur infrequently in the Northern Kete region—approximately once in each village every fifteen to twenty years. The rites are conducted away from the village in a forest camp and may take more than a month to complete. […] The ascribed purpose of buadi is to transform the novices (badi) into full participating members of the adult community.”
Binkley (ibid.: 52) continues: “The verbal and visual artistic forms created during buadi express a ritual distancing of women and the uninitiated. The initiation camp is referred to as a cemetery and songs and other verbal utterances describe the novices as both dead and rotting. The vivid red masks invoke the appearance of corpses anointed with red camwood powder before burial. During initiation, the novices (badi) are also equated with poisonous snakes, forest birds, stinging red ants, dangerous monkeys, and antelope.”
He continues (ibid.: 48-49) “Wooden masks, like their raffia counterparts, form an ensemble of characterizations each with its distinctive form, performance style, and origin stories which support the expansive power of buadi. These include Kayeke—the Cwa (Pygmy) mask, Ngulungu—an antelope mask, Muadi nyoka—a snake mask, and the maternity mask Kamakengu ka muana. Kamakengu ka muana is a more embellished carved version of the basic Kamakengu mask type. The term Kamakengu ka muana means literally Kamakengu ‘with child’. The head and torso of the female figure is carved from a single piece of wood with a short vertical projection from the top of the figure’s head. The figure’s arms are carved perpendicular to the torso but usually end abruptly at the elbows. The forearms and hands are fabricated from cloth stuffed with fiber and attached to the female figure at the elbows. […] The finest examples of Kamakengu ka muana are the four masks Frobenius collected in the Kete village of Mwanika in 1905 which are now in the collection of the Hamburgisches Museum für Volkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany [see fig. 1].”
The Stone Kuba Mask, closely related in form to the Kamakengu ka muana figures as evidenced by its strong resemblance to the Frobenius examples, is of a rarer type called Diyulu, and represents the masculine warrior opposite the maternal female. While the general form is almost identical, the Stone statue wears a beard and an expression of powerful dominance, with chameleon-like conical eyes in contrast to the peaceful heavy-lidded feminine figures. Binkley (ibid.: 52) explains: “The [Kamakengu ka muana] mask is accompanied by the raffia warrior mask Munyinga or more rarely by a wooden version of the warrior mask called Diyulu […]. The male mask in this ensemble represents the husband of Kamakengu ka muana.”
The scarceness of masks of this type is partially explained by the infrequency of Southern Kuba initiation rituals and by the practice of burning all initiation paraphernalia at the conclusion of each cycle. It should also be noted that in 1905, when Frobenius collected the four masks today in Hamburg, the Kuba kingdom was on the cusp of a cataclysmic transformation. From the 1885 establishment of the Congo Free State onwards, the Kuba and surrounding peoples were subject to increasingly brutal oppression inflicted upon them by the colonial administration and their commercial enterprises in the rubber industry. Initiation societies were suppressed, and traditional social structures irreparably changed. Between 1893 and 1920, disastrous epidemics ravaged the region and it is estimated that up to half of the population of the Kasai region perished of disease during this period. Thus fifteen to twenty years after Frobenius’s visit, the length of an initiation cycle, the Kuba would find their lives radically altered.
The Stone Kuba Mask is also unique in this small corpus in that it shows signs of wear and weathering. It can be dated on stylistic basis to the same period as the Frobenius masks and the Berlin mulwalwa mask, but unlike those examples seems to have stood in situ for some time before it was collected, as evidenced by the weathering and insect damage around the base. Although as a rule these objects were burned along with the entire initiation enclosure at the conclusion of the ceremonies, it is possible that the present figure was preserved for use in another cycle, for a neighboring village, or for a display of paraphernalia on an initiation wall (Binkley, personal communication, September 29, 2013). Remarkably, it also bears a deliberately-inserted old metal blade in the shoulder; although the practice of activating sculptures by the insertion of metal ‘charges’ was widespread in Central Africa, this is highly unusual among the Kuba.
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