Tags for: Chasing Away Death
  • Magazine Article
  • Exhibitions

Chasing Away Death

A “moon mask” on loan from the Seattle Art Museum
Constantine Petridis, Curator of African Art
February 23, 2016

Face Mask, Luba people, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood, raffia, bark, twine; h. 92.1 cm. Provenance: probably field-collected in the Congo by Fr. Pierre Colle before 1908; Society of the White Fathers, Antwerp, 1908–61; Henri Kamer, New York, 1961–62; Katherine Coryton White, Cleveland, 1962–80. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, no. 81.17.869. Photo © Seattle Art Museum

This face mask is one of the undisputed masterworks of Central African art in a Western collection, and arguably the most famous example of the round striped mask tradition of southeastern Congo’s Luba people. A highlight among the nearly 2,000 African works donated by Cleveland native—and pioneering collector—Katherine Coryton White to the Seattle Art Museum in 1980, it was first shown in the United States in an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1968. In fact, our museum owes more than 100 works to “Kat” White’s generosity, and these still constitute the core of our African art collection. That the Seattle Art Museum’s Luba mask was one of White’s own favorites is suggested by the fact that she used its image in her distinctive bookplate.

The mask’s striated surface decoration has led to its presumed connection with a male initiatory association called Bwadi bwa Kifwebe, shared between the Luba and the neighboring Songye peoples, though with different connotations. Among the Luba, a distinction would have been made between round female masks like the Seattle Art Museum’s, and oblong or hourglass-shaped masks identified as male. The white color of the masks’ stripes is thought to evoke positive connotations of nourishment and procreation, and to relate to the benign spirits of the dead and healing. The masks would have primarily danced in celebrations honoring the appearance of the new moon, a symbol of recognition, hope, and rebirth. This lunar symbolism also pertains to the popular Luba sculptural genre of female bowl-bearing figures used in royal divination.


Bukasandji Association Two members in the village of Bunda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1927–35. Photo: Rev. William F. P. Burton. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium

However, instead of the Bwadi bwa Kifwebe, scholars have suggested that round striped Luba masks like this one may have played a role in the activities of a brotherhood or association known as Bukasandji (also called Kasandji or Kazanzi), which was condemned and heavily persecuted by both missionaries and administrators during the Belgian colonial regime because of its alleged “necrophagic rituals.” One of the Bukasandji’s actual purposes was to confront and eliminate sorcery as the source of misfortune and death. The practice of exhuming the corpse of a person suspected of evil actions is what led to the man-eating allegations. In reality, bits of the body may have been consumed with the intention to absorb some of its life-force, but more were recuperated to serve for the making of protective charms. The remaining parts of the corpse were then burned and the ashes discarded in a river in order to annihilate the spirit of the deceased who was haunting his living descendants.

Among the various works created by artists of the Bukasandji brotherhood are adze-like wooden emblems decorated with an abstracted human head extending into a long beak. Known as nyuzya, they would have been carried, and most likely hung over the shoulder, by members of the association during the funeral of a deceased colleague. The iconography of these emblems seems to refer to the ground hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri or B. cafer), a large foraging bird that is considered to be the gatekeeper to the otherworld and thus closely associated with the world of the dead, which is also at the center of the Bukasandji’s activities. The bird in turn points to a relationship with royal diviners who earn their powers through possession by a spirit named Kibawa. Such diviners—who worked in tandem with members of the Bukasandji association and shared some of their dress and accessories—wear the skull and beak of a hornbill suspended from a necklace. Interestingly, in light of the possible lunar symbolism of various Luba sculptural works, the Kibawa spirit itself is linked with both the color white and the moon.


Bukasandji Emblem Luba people, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood; h. 26 cm. Provenance: possibly Gaston-Denys Périer, Antwerp; Yvan Dierickx, Brussels; Alexis Bonew, Brussels. Private collection, Belgium. Photo © Paul Louis

The best known among the different mask types believed to have been used in the Bukasandji association are the rare examples sharing the avian shape of the nyuzya emblem, like a handsome mask in the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart, Germany. However, as mentioned earlier, judging from field research since the early 1900s it seems that striated round masks like the Seattle Art Museum’s would also have played a role in the Bukasandji. While both associations would be of Songye origin, scholars have estimated that the Bukasandji developed about a century before the Bwadi bwa Kifwebe took root in Lubaland. The idea is that the striped round Luba masks were inspired in both form and iconography by the striated bifwebe masks of the Songye but that their role within the Bukasandji was actually to counter the growing influence and infiltration of the Bwadi bwa Kifwebe in Luba territory. The fact that at least the male bifwebe masks among the Songye were believed to draw on sorcery to assert social control, while the Bukasandji-related masks among the Luba were used to combat sorcery, is telling in this regard.

Whether striped or not, what all round Luba masks have in common are their references to the moon as a benevolent star and to the world of the benign dead. Given their presumed relationship with the Bukasandji association, one might argue, following the recommendation put forth by the art historian Julien Volper in his book Under the Influence of the Songye (Montreuil, France: Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2012, p. 121), that it would be more fitting to use kwezi, the Luba term for “moon,” rather than kifwebe, to identify the Seattle Art Museum’s mask and other such Luba sculptures in Western collections. However, since kifwebe is a generic name for “mask,” and the etymology of the term is “to chase away, or put to flight, death,” the designation is actually quite appropriate.  



Helmet Mask Luba people, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood, fiber, bark; h. 43 cm. Provenance: acquired by Lt. Werner von Grawert in Usumbura (present-day Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi) in 1898–99. Linden-Museum Stuttgart, Germany (donated by Grawert in 1909), no. 58691. Photo: Anatol Dreyer. © Linden-Museum Stuttgart

Cleveland Art, March/April 2016