About this artwork
Kuba masks have traditionally been used in the context of teaching history and cultural values through performance, thus contributing to the forming of identity and the maintenance of the social order. The bwoom is one of three generic types of royal Kuba masks. Although less elaborate than the other two types, the bwoom mask expresses its power through scale and dramatic sculptural form. These masks reflect the spiritual life of the Kuba people. They function as mingesh (singular ngesh), or nature spirits, and accordingly function as intermediaries between the supreme being (Nyeem) and living humans.
This bwoom mask is representative of the genre, with its bulging forehead, prominent nose, and sunken cheeks. Some scholars have suggested that the facial features represent a pygmy, perhaps a specific member of the Tshwa Pygmies, one of the many hunter-gatherer groups that lived in lands close to the Kuba villages. The symbolism of the pygmy is appropriate in so far as the mask is meant to represent the common people. Other sources indicate that the mask is a representation of a hydrocephalic prince, while others argue that it is an image of a ngesh.
Other features common to bwoom masks seen here include the form, carved from a single piece of wood; cowrie shells and attached seedpods arranged in decorative patterns and outlines around the face; copper sheeting; a continuous line of white beads across the face, covering the eyes; a full brow, creating a shadow over the eyes; a blue beaded trident form on the forehead; and the use of goat skin, goat hair, and raffia cloth to embellish the top of the head. The leather strip that hangs from the chin is found in many, but not all, masks of this type. The decorative detailing of the mask further emphasizes the dramatic sculptural modeling of the forehead, nose, and jaw.
During a performance, the bwoom mask introduces an element of tension into the courtship dance between Woot, the primeval ancestor (represented by the mukenga mask [1982.1504]), and his sister-wife (represented by the ngaang acyeem [1982.1505]). As a group, princely dignitaries wear these masks in processions and ceremonies performed at initiations and burial rites. Used in this way, Kuba myths of creation and the founding of the dynasty are related to the populace, providing both spectacle and the transmission of cultural values.
Kuba arts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have captured the attention of artists and collectors in Europe and America for over one hundred years. Missionaries, explorers, and ethnographers who visited the region starting in the 19th century characterized the Kuba as a creative and aristocratic people whose degree of cultural development rivaled that of other advanced civilizations such as Pharaonic Egypt and Imperial Rome.
—Permanent Collection Object Description
- Helmet Mask (Bwoom)
- Wood, metal, glass beads, fabric, pigment, seeds, thread, and leather
- 63.5 × 49.9 × 67.3 cm (25 × 18 1/2 × 26 1/2 in.)
- Edward E. Ayer Endowment in memory of Charles L. Hutchinson