The Rollings Mask, named after its previous owner Kelley Rollings of Tucson, is a masterpiece of central Congolese sculpture. In its aesthetic purity, sculptural perfection and iconographic rarity, it can only be compared to a handful of other important Congolese masks of masterpiece quality, including a Zombo mask and a Bakwa Mputu mask (both published by Herreman and Petridis 1993: 33, cat. 5; and 17, cat. 55), a Luluwa mask previously in the collection of Werner Muensterberger (Sotheby’s, New York, May 11, 2012, lot 62), and a Luba mask with horns in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Central, Tervuren (Roberts and Roberts 2007: cover and pl. 20). Merging stylistic influences from various neighboring peoples, it is a keystone for the understanding of Central African culture.
Masks from the Kasai Region
The Kasai region in south-central Democratic Republic of the Congo spans roughly from the shores of the Kasai river in the west to the Lomami river in the east, bordering in the south Chokwe, Lunda and Luba territories. Home to the Kuba, Kete, Luluwa, Luntu, Luba-Kasai, Nsapo and the western Songye groups, the Kasai region presented for centuries a melting pot which gave birth to some of Africa’s most celebrated cultures.
Over-lifesize helmet masks were part of several central African artistic traditions, including the Luba, Kuba, Kete, Luluwa and Luntu peoples. Cf. the famous Luba mask with horns in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Central, Tervuren, acquired by Commandant Michaux in 1896 in the town of Lu(u)lu (inv. no. "EO.0.0.23470", collecting information provided by Constantine Petridis, personal communication April 2012; published, amongst others, in Roberts and Roberts 2007: cover and pl. 20; MRAC 1995: 190-191, cat. 157); another Luba mask in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, acquired in 1890 by Emin Pasha and Franz Stuhlmann, in the city of Tabora (inv. no. "III.E.2453", published in Roberts and Roberts 2007: pl. 18); a mask in the British Museum, London, collected by Emil Torday in Banagasu in 1909, which has been variously attributed to the Luba and Luntu (Roberts and Roberts 1996: 242, endnote 6; Petridis 2005: 58); various Pende masks (e.g., one in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Central, Tervuren (inv. no. "RG.53.74.5485”, MRAC 1995: 112, cat. 80); a Luluwa mask previously in the collection of Werner Muensterberger (Sotheby’s, New York, Masterpieces of African Art from the Collection of the Late Werner Muensterberger, May 11, 2012, lot 62); a helmet mask in hypertrophic style in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Central, Tervuren (MRAC 1995: 142, cat. 107) which has been variously attributed to the Luntu and Luluwa (Felix 1987: 93, fig. 2; Petridis in MRAC 1995: 330, text to cat. 107); a Kuba mask in the Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich, acquired by Han Coray before 1928 (published in Binkley and Darish 2009: pl. 14); a Kete or Southern Bushoong mask in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Central, Tervuren (inv. no. "RG.51.31.95", published in MRAC 1995: 161, cat. 128); a Biombo mask with horns in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Central, Tervuren, acquired in 1928 from René Paul Preys (inv. no. " EO.0.0.27925”); a Luntu mask in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge (inv. no. "65-8-50/10713"); as well as several other Luntu masks in institutional and private collections, which were all published by Petridis (2005: 50-58).
Stylistic Placement of the Rollings Mask
Widely admired as a masterpiece of Cubism since its first publication in William Rubin’s “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art (1984), the Rollings Mask’s unique aesthetics have led to a variety of suggested cultural attributions, including Kasingo (aka Sikasingo, Basikasingo; Paudrat in Rubin 1984: 175), Pende (see comments to GVR Yale archive no. “17985”; however, the leading Pende scholar Zoë Strother excludes this origin and suggests instead a Kasai region provenance, personal communication, March 2015; also against a Pende attribution opines Marc Felix, personal communication, March 2015), Biombo (Claessens, personal communication April 2015) and Luluwa (Petridis, personal communication March 2015). With the exception of Kasingo, all attributions are to groups living in the Kasai region. In addition to the aesthetic traits and the fact that there is not one example for a tradition of helmet masks in the Kivu region which is home to the Kasingo, several other features link the Rollings mask to the Kasai, namely the presence of metal attachments on the forehead, bridge of the nose and nostrils, as well as the grid-like pigmentation on the mask’s neck (Strother, personal communication March 2015).
The general shape of the Rollings Mask, its narrow width and the absence of holes through which a performer could see suggest that it was worn as a headcrest with the performer’s forehead behind the mask’s chin (in a fashion similar to how wearers of Corinthian war helmets are often depicted on Attic vases). Other examples of helmet masks worn as headcrests from the Kasai region come from the Kuba, Bushoong and Kete (e.g., Herreman and Petridis 1993: 131, cat. 60). While the general shape of the Rollings Mask relates to certain Biombo masks (see Musée Royal de l'Afrique Central, Tervuren, inv. no. "EO.0.0.27925”), the protruding forehead is a feature known from Pende, Kuba, and certain Luluwa masks. Among the Pende, the bulbous forehead is distinctly male (see Strother 1998: 108-109), and the argument has been made that the same is true also for other peoples ranging from Kuba to Songye (ibid.: 160-161).
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Rollings Mask is its serene, seemingly introverted facial expression. While the eyes of the Rollings Mask could be closed, it seems as plausible to interpret them as downcast given the Kasai context and the mask’s overall abstraction (cf. also a Pende female mask with downcast eyes with a sculptural treatment similar to the Rollings Mask in the Etnografisch Museum Antwerp, inv. no. "AE.551", Strother 1998: 225, fig. 97). Downcast eyes are a universal feature of masks and figures from west to east of the Kasai region and beyond, and most prominent among the Pende, Luluwa, Luba, and Songye. They are generally associated with female beauty, calmness, introspection and virtue. For the Pende context see Strother (1998: 111-113); in the Luba context downcast eyes have been associated with "the inward side of Luba feminine power. Downcast eyes are a reference to insight, as well as to the humility that a person must exercise before the bavidye spirits" (Roberts in Mack 2000: 130); in Luluwa figure sculpture, downcast eyes are significantly rarer than in Luba art but the few examples displaying this iconography are female figures, too (cf. The Detroit Institute of Arts, inv. no. "1982.49", collected in situ by Leo Frobenius in 1905, Petridis 2009: 132, cat. 97; Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, inv. no. "III.C.3621", Koloss 1999: 224, cat. 148; private collection, on permanent loan to the Catholic University of Leuven, collected in situ by Karel Timmermans in 1964, Petridis 2009: 133, cat. 98); for a partial account of Songye masks with downcast eyes see Sotheby’s, New York, May 13, 2011, lot 274.
In addition to its sculptural details, the Rollings Mask features a fine surface coloration with natural pigments, again relating it to several cultural influences of the Kasai region. The grid-like blue and white diamond-shape design on the neck is related to, yet distinct from, the blue and white triangular design seen on Kuba masks, e.g., a Kuba-Bushoong mask in the Etnografisch Museum, Antwerp which was acquired from Henri Pareyn (inv. no. “331”, Herreman and Petridis 1993: 135, cat. 62) and a Kuba-Binji mask in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin which was collected by H. Salomon in 1910 (inv. no. “III.C.26361”, Koloss 1992: pl. 141). However, a similar design is also seen on a Luluwa mask in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Central, Tervuren, inv. no. "RG.15401”, Herreman and Petridis 1993: 121, cat. 53). The face of the Rollings Mask features further two kinds of what are presumably scarification marks, painted in dark pigment: a double-V in the center of the forehead, and two diagonal striations below each eye. Both types of marks are found in somewhat similar form on Pende (Sousberghe 1958: fig. 81 shows a similar mark on the forehead and was collected in the Kasai region; fig. 57 for the cheeks; however, fig. 48 is a rather crude mask with both forehead and cheek marks similar to those on the Rollings Mask, and interestingly this mask is described as representation of a foreigner) and Kuba (Herreman and Petridis 1993: 135, cat. 62) masks, but most clearly on Luluwa masks (cf. the Muensterberger Mask, Sotheby’s, New York, May 11, 2012, lot 62; similar are also the marks on a mask attributed to the Luluwa subgroup “Bakwa Ndolo” which was previously in the collection of André Lothe, Paris (before 1930), and is today in the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva (inv. no. “BMG.1026.30”, Hahner-Herzog in Hahner-Herzog, Kecskési and Vajda 1998: pl. 84; see fig. 1). The latter mask shares with the Rollings Mask also the treatment of the forehead, elongation of the face and the protruding eyes with hypertrophic upper lid, presumably representing downcast eyes; also the eyes of the Muensterberger Mask are downcast.
Finally, seen from the front the Rollings Mask shows a subtle difference in color between the left and right side of the face, with reddish pigment on the proper right and darker pigment on the other side. This two-color scheme on the face is not known from any of the aforementioned styles except the Luluwa, where it is present on the famous figure of a “Leopard-Chief” in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, which was collected in 1885 by Hermann von Wissmann (inv. no. “III.C.3246”, Koloss 1992: pl. 106).
Based on the above analysis of stylistic features and iconography, the geographic origin of the Rollings Mask can be placed into the triangle between the Luluwa and Kasai rivers, east of the Pende where the northern Luluwa border the Kuba and Kete. In light of the aesthetic affinity to the Barbier-Mueller mask as well as the separated two-color surface pigmentation of the face, a Luluwa origin seems most likely.
The Rollings Mask: a Masterpiece of Cubist Abstraction
Like all masks used in ritual, the Rollings Mask was conceived as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds. While its precise symbolism is not yet known, the feature of downcast eyes could suggest that it represents a female (which, however, could contradict the interpretation of the forehead as male, see above). The noble proportions, symmetrical features and scarification marks of the face would certainly correspond to the Luluwa ideal of beauty (bwimpe) and make the mask the perfect vessel for ancestral spirits who would inhabit it and its performer on ritual occasions.
Undisputable are the mask’s strikingly cubistic features which bring to mind several works by Pablo Picasso from the years 1907-08, most prominently among them of course the two masked figures on the right of Demoiselles d’Avignon, but also lesser known works such as the sketch of a standing nude in profile featured here. While it is unnecessary to propose yet another direct link between African sculpture and Picasso’s œuvre, William Rubin’s catalog text accompanying his 1984 “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art exhibition at MoMA still holds true (Rubin 1984: 265): “The resemblances between the heads in the Demoiselles and the masks that have been compared to them in art-historical studies are thus all fortuitous – reflections of affinities between arts that communicate through conceptual signs rather than through pictorial conventions directly derived from seeing. Yet the fact that so many more such affinities may be found between Picasso’s art and that of the tribal peoples than is the case with the work of other pioneer modernists reflects, on Picasso’s part, a profound identity of spirit with the tribal peoples as well as a generalized assimilation of the principles and character of their art.”
The Rollings Mask is the tangible proof of this aesthetic, artistic and spiritual affinity.
Acknowledgements and cordial thanks to Zoë Strother, Columbia University, and Constantine Petridis, The Cleveland Museum of Art.
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