Featured Object: Kuba Mask overview image

Featured Object: Kuba Mask

  • Post Date: 01/06/2017
  • Author: Melissa Bushnick
  • Reading Time: 3 minute read

This Kuba mask, called aBwoom or mBwoom, is a principal mask used in a variety of contexts including public ceremonies, rites involving the king, and initiations of the Kuba peoples, who live in the Lower Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in an area of both dense forest and open savannah.

  • side view, Cowrie shells, seads, white and colored beads attached.
  • Cowrie shells, seads, white and colored beads attached.

This Bwoom mask is designed in standard fashion with easily recognized facial features. The masks are made in the style of a wooden helmet mask featuring metal work on the forehead, cheeks, and nose, painted circles around the mouth, and beadwork along the eyes nose and mouth. The colors of the beads are significant: blue suggests high rank, red represents suffering and fertility, and white symbolizes purity, mourning, and the sacred. The cowrie shells, along with the beads, indicate wealth and royal status. When Bwoom appears in masquerade, the entire body of the mask-wearer is covered in fabric, cowrie shells, beadwork, feathers and/or raffia.

  • African mask
  • African mask, forehead detail
  • African mask facial detail
  • African mask detail view from an angle
  • Burlap cloth attached to top of head, hair coming from edges of burlap, colored beads attached

Royal Masking Trio

The Bwoom is one of three in a royal masking trio; the other two are Ngaady aMwaash and Mwash aMbooy. Although their dances are generally solo, together the three royal masks reenact Kuba myths of origin. In such reenactments, Bwoom is always considered a spirit.

Bwoom as Outsider

The Bwoom mask represents the non-royal constituents of the Kuba kingdom, and the Bwoom character is thought of as an outsider, foreigner, or sometimes a pygmy. According to myth, Bwoom came from the north and was not a part of the Kuba kingdom. This mask would have been used in ceremonial dances alongside Mwaash aMbooy, depicting a mock fight for the affections of Ngaady aMwaash. In these performances, Mwaash aMbooy's dance is calm and stately, while Bwoom acts with pride and aggression.

Mwaash aMbooy and King Woot

Mwaash aMbooy is meant to embody and represent the royal power of Woot, the mythical first king and founder of the Kuba peoples, while Ngaady aMwaash is called the “pawn woman” of Mwaash aMbooy. She is recognized as the first wife of the king Woot, from whom all Kuba royalty are descended. However, she is also known as the sister of Woot. The relationship with his sister resulted in illness and disunity, and ultimately Woot fled from his wife. The story of Woot and Mwaash aMbooy thus serves as a cautionary tale against incest; the transgressive nature of this incestuous relationship separates Woot from the world of mortals.

  • Large mask with bulbous forehead and colored beads attached