About This Artwork

Western Kasai region, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Mask (Mukenga), Late 19th/mid–20th century

Wood, glass beads, cowrie shells, feathers, raffia, fur, fabric, thread, and bells
57.5 x 24.1 x 20.3 cm (22 5/8 x 9 1/2 x 8 in.)

Laura T. Magnuson Fund, 1982.1504

Mukenga masks like this one are worn at funerals of influential, titled men in the northern part of the Kuba kingdom. The mask's form and materials combine symbols associated with status and leadership. Its surface is comprised of raffia cloth upon which glass beads, cowrie shells, raffia fibers, and animal fur are attached. The carefully arranged cowrie shells, once prized as currency, signal wealth and status. The beard-like ruff of the large and dangerous colobus monkey refers to powers of the forest. A prominent trunk projecting upward and over the front of the mask represents the elephant, the supreme symbol of leadership.

Formed in the seventeenth century, the Kuba Kingdom unites an ethnically diverse population across the Western Kasai region of today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. This mask, called mukenga, is a regional variant of a Kuba royal mask that is made only in the northern part of the kingdom. The mask’s form and lavish embellishment are associated with wealth and status. Cowrie shells and glass beads, once highly valued imports, cover much of its surface. A stylized elephant trunk and tusks rise from the top, evoking the powerful animal and the wealth accrued by the Kuba in the nineteenth century through control of the ivory trade. The tuft of red parrot feathers that is suspended from the tip of the trunk and the spotted cat fur on the mask’s face are insignias of rank.

During the funerals of titled aristocrats, a member of the men’s initiation society may dance wearing the mukenga mask and an elaborate costume that includes many layers of woven raffia skirts and cowrie- and bead-laden belts, gloves, bracelets, and anklets. The deceased is laid out in identical attire, underscoring the association between the spirit, which is manifested through the performance of the mask, and the realm of the ancestors.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2009, p. 13.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Publication History

Francois Neyt, Traditional Arts and History of Zaire: Forest Cultures and Kingdomes of the Savannah (Louvain: Institute Supérieur d’Archéologie et d’Historie de l’Art; Brussels: Société d’Arts Primitifs, 1981), p. 157, fig. VIII.5.

Art Institute of Chicago, Annual Report 1982-83 (Art Institute of Chicago, 1983), pp. cover, 7 (fig. 8), 35 (ill.).

Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 93, fig. 4.2.

David Binkley, "The Teeth of the Nyim: The Elephant and Ivory in Kuba Art," in Elephant: The Animal and its Ivory in African Culture, exh. cat., ed. Doran H. Ross (Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995), p. 287, fig. 13–12.

Art Institute of Chicago, “The Lion's Trail: A Family Gallery Hunt” (Art Institute of Chicago, 1998).

Jean Sousa, “Looking at Art Together: Families and Lifelong Learning” (Art Institute of Chicago, 2002), p. 11.

Art Institute of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago: The Essential Guide, revised ed. (Art Institute of Chicago, 2003), p. 23 (ill.).

Art Institute of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago The Essential Guide, revised ed. (Art Institute of Chicago, 2009), p. 13 (ill.).

Ownership History

Peter Loebarth, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, by 1982; Jacques Hautelet, Brussels, Belgium, and La Jolla, Calif., before 1982; sold to the Art Institute, 1982.

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