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EASTERN CONGOLESE, POSSIBLY LEGA, IVORY MASK, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
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EASTERN CONGOLESE, POSSIBLY LEGA, IVORY MASK, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

The Robert Rubin Collection of African Art

|
New York

EASTERN CONGOLESE, POSSIBLY LEGA, IVORY MASK, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
lukungu, made of African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusk.
ivory
Height: 7 1/4 in (18.4 cm)
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Provenance

Jean-Pierre Lepage, Brussels
Henri Kamer, Paris, acquired from the above in 1958 or 1959
John A. Friede, New York, acquired from the above in 1961
Michael Oliver, acquired from the above in 1981
Meryl Platt, Chicago, acquired from the above in 1982
Robert Rubin, New York, acquired from the above on May 1, 1982

Exhibited

Museum for African Art, New York, Material Differences, Art and Identity in Africa, April 10 - October 6, 2003; additional venues:
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, September 17, 2004 - January 2, 2005
Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, April 2 - June 19, 2005

Literature

John McKesson, "La Collection de Robert Rubin", Arts d'Afrique Noire, no. 71, Autumn 1989, p. 14
Frank Herreman, Material differences: Art and Identity in Africa, New York, 2003, p. 47, cat. 39

Catalogue Note

The cultural attribution of this archaic mask has been subject of debate. While McKesson (1989: 14) clasifies the mask as "Kumu," Herreman (2003: text to cat. 39) suggests "Ngbaka or Mbanja." Daniel Biebuyck (1994: no. 68), however, identifies a stylistically closely related mask, also carved from ivory and of similar scale, as Lega.

The Lega inhabit the equatorial rainforest of the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and are unified by a largely uniform language and culture (Biebuyck 1986: 1-2).

At the center of traditional Lega society stood the bwami association, a closed organization with graded membership and complex initiation rites that imposed a high moral and philosophical code. Bwami enforced a rigid hierarchy, and induction to higher levels could only be accomplished through strictly regulated initiation rituals. Such rituals were accompanied by various ritual paraphernalia which were made of wood, magical substances or ivory.

The Lega believed that the bwami association builds the bridge between the living and the departed. Lega masks were substitutes for deceased ancestors and enabled the latter to participate in bwami rituals. However, Lega masks did not represent specific individuals but rather idealized ancestors. For a full discussion of Lega masks and their role in the bwami association see Biebuyck (1973: 142-230).

Lega masks can be categorized by their form and material. The offered mask, which resembles a skull, belongs to the lukungu (lit. "skull") category. Lukungu masks were made from ivory or bone and reserved for members of the highest grade in the bwami association: the kindi. Entrance to the kindi was dependent on the completion of the initiation rituals of all lower bwami grades as well as the rites specific for kindi. The kindi rites included a sequence of three ritual cycles: kyogo kya kindi, musagi wa kindi, and lutumbo lwa kindi. Only the completion of all three of these cycles could initiate participants into kindi.

Masks like the offered lot were used as paraphernalia during the final kindi ritual cycle: the lutumbo lwa kindi.  These rites, which lasted four to seven days, were the most involved of any Lega ritual cycle and required the construction of a new village for potential initiates and their kinsmen (Biebuyck 1973: 79-81). The Rubin Mask would have been used in two of the fourteen rituals in the lutumbo lwa kindi cycle: kilinkumbi and ibugebuge. In the former, the mask would have been affixed to a small fence with other small masks. In the latter, participants in lutumbo lwa kindi wore (lower-ranking) wooden masks and danced around the fence built during kilinkumbi. The ibugebuge dance induced a trance-like state in which participants offered interpretations of the kilinkumbi masks. See Biebuyck (1954: passim) for further discussion.

A Lega proverb states that "On ivory, mushrooms do not grow" (Biebuyck 1973: 174), indicating that lukungu masks were impervious to the effects of time. The transmission of lukungu masks within a matriline thus underscored the lineage's unbroken chain of kindi and renewed the Lega traditions and bwami rituals for the next generation.

Despite the significance of masks within bwami, it is important to note that masks - like all Lega ritual paraphenalia - were considered to have inherent power (magala). Magala could be activated in the context of bwami, making the object a masango, which translates as "heavy thing." The use in bwami rites added a "weight" (i.e., a ritual significance) to the objects used and made them powerful also outside of the context of bwami (cf. Biebuyck 1972: 50-60). For this reason, masks were also used in funerary rituals, where, upon the death of a high-ranking individual, a fence would be built around the grave on which masks would be hung (Delhaise 1909).

The Robert Rubin Collection of African Art

|
New York