Late 19th to mid 20th century Kuba Mukenga elephant mask. ex. Liberty antiques department


An impressive and amazing genuine item of African cultural heritage. This was originally purchased in the 1980’s from the antiques department of Liberty in London and still has the original tag (see photo).

In the Nineteenth century, the Kuba people of the Democratic republic of Congo made masks that held great significance to their culture. During the funerals of titled aristocrats, a member of the men’s initiation society would dance wearing the Mukenga mask and an elaborate costume that included many layers of woven raffia skirts and cowrie and bead-laden belts, gloves, bracelets, and anklets.

Kuba people make all of their masks with particular ornate and lavish objects and designs, all of which signify meaning. Hand woven raffia cloth, fur, cowrie shells and copper are some of the many objects that the Kuba prized. The rich designs and textiles denote social class and structure. The higher classes could be identified by the complex patterns and variations in design. The triangular pattern seen on the mask is the most predominant surface pattern found on the Mukenga masks. This unique pattern of triangles angling together into a diamond shape is unique to the Kuba people, known as mbul bwinn. It is reserved for people of high status and is found in architecture, textiles and masks.

The elaborate construction starts with a layered raffia cloth and heavy leather internal matrix. The face has thin sheet metal laid over the leather. Externally the mask incorporates raffia, wood, cowrie shells, beads and animal skin/ fur. The cowrie shells on the mask are used to symbolize royalty, the more shells a person had on the mask, the more divine they were. Cowrie shells were also used as currency before the twentieth century so they represented wealth. White is associated with death, so the white cowrie shells also indicate mourning and ancestors’ dry bones. It is hard to imagine how much time and effort has gone into the construction of this mask with all the beadwork of thousands of different beads and tying all the cowries onto the mask. The attention to detail is amazing as the underside of the back of the mask is also covered in cowries even though it cannot usually be seen (see photo).

The top of the mask is a representation of an elephant trunk and two flaps that represent tusks. The elephant is a symbol of mourning and nobility as the largest and most powerful animal of the region was a symbol for the exalted power of the hereditary ruler.

The condition is fair for the age of the mask, but there are places where the beadwork and cowries have fallen off over the years. The mask was acquired originally in this “worn” condition from Liberty and has had little damage from the 1980’s to present. From the close up photo, you can see how over the years, some of the larger beads have become brittle and crumbled with age Inside there is significant staining at the front and at the back of the mask which would be consistent with this mask having been used and worn in ceremonies. This can be seen in the inside photographs. There have also been a few repairs made to the inside where it has been stitched together using local materials again an indication of wear and use.

The mask is 48cm wide, 42cm front to back and stands 54cm high. From the base of the back of the mask to the tip of the “trunk” is 100cm.


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