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

Originating in the 16th century and reaching its peak of influence in the 19th century, the Kuba kingdom united numerous ethnic groups in south-central Democratic Republic of Congo. Mukenga masks such as this one are worn at funerals of influential, titled men in the northern part of the kingdom. The mask’s form and materials combine symbols associated with status and leadership. Constructed over a wooden frame, 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 beardlike 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.

Wearing an elaborate full-body costume that includes leggings, gloves, footwear, a vest, and cloth strips heavily embellished with cowrie shells and beads, the mukenga performer tours the community on the third day after the death of a titled man. Following the burial, the mukenga again appears, accompanied by the music of whistles, bullroarers, and drums. The funeral attire of the deceased is identical to the costume of the mukenga masquerader, suggesting a link between the masquerade and the powerful presence of ancestors.