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: A Pende Mbuya from Zaire


Moira F. Harris



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
On display in the gallery of African, Oceanic, and New World Cultures at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is a recent addition to the growing African collection, a Pende mask from Zaire, the former Belgian Congo (figure 1). Fifty-one inches long, the mask is carved from a single piece of wood and is painted with reddish-brown, black, and white pigments. It was used in the dances involved with the mukanda, a coming-of-age ritual for boys still practiced by the Pende. Carved in the Katundu chiefdom of the Kilembe sector in the late nineteenth century, the longbearded mask is of a type known as mbuya and was part of a Belgian collection before being purchased by the museum in 1976.Initiation ceremonies marking the passage of boys or girls from childhood to adult status are quite commonly found in tribal societies throughout the world. As the young in any culture mature their elders seek to instruct them in the beliefs and customs of the group so that they will be equipped to undertake their proper roles as adults. In some cultures the ceremony is performed for each eligible individual; in others the rites may be arranged for a group of children of the appropriate age. Such education may entail a period of seclusion, instruction in beliefs and practices, and various bodily operations such as circumcision or clitoridectomy.In addition to teaching the lessons of adulthood, initiation rites often include changes in name and dress to indicate the change in status. Body painting, tribal scarification marks, special items of clothing and jewelry, certain styles of hairdress, or even a shaved head may all serve as symbols of the transformation of child into adult.Initiation rites are usually divided, according to Arnold van Gennep's classic analysis, into periods of separation, transition, and reincorporation, not all of which may be celebrated with equal importance by every group. The passage from one social status to another is often identified with a territorial passage and a change in residence as well.1 Bushong boys from Zaire, for example, pass through a wall and crawl through a tunnel, emerging to take up residence in a forest camp for the remainder of the rites.2 The rite of separation enacted by crawling through the tunnel also symbolizes the act of birth for the Bushong, who, like many other Africans, consider initiation as the death of a child prior to rebirth as an adult. All the taboos and restrictions enforced while the children are separated from the rest of the village serve to emphasize the continuing control of the elders in a traditional society. The solidarity of the group is strengthened by the shared experience of the ordeals undergone during the rites, ordeals often more terrifying in the telling than in reality.In Africa each stage of the rites may be accompanied and dramatized by the use of masks. Masked figures may gather the children together to begin the rituals. Bushong boys enter and leave the initiation tunnel by passing through the legs of a masked personage. Masks are worn by the dancers in all of the dances performed during and at the close of the initiation rites. Other examples of masks in the Institute's collections used in initiations are a Bundu mask of the Sande women's society among the Mende people of Sierra Leone (72.69), a N'tomo mask of the Marka people of Mali (L76.50.2), and a Kifwebe mask of the Songye tribe from Zaire (72.70.3). Such masks are more often found in West and Central African societies where the masking tradition is stronger, but initiation rites exist throughout Africa.Because initiation rites involve training in values, beliefs, and historic traditions, the rites may change to reflect developments in the society itself. These changes may come as a result of contact with other African or with European cultures. The Pende, for example, apparently practiced initiation long before they left Angola to emigrate north into Zaire, but it was only when they had reached the Kwango River that they added masks to the rites.3According to the Pende oral tradition, their original territory was near Loanda in Angola. Warfare, as well as pressures caused by slavery, impelled the Pende to begin their migration away from the coast by the early sixteenth century. North by northeast the Pende clans moved, slowly ascending the tributaries of the Congo River, somewhat ahead of the advance of the Lunda peoples. By the early eighteenth century they had reached the areas in which they live today.4 The western Pende villages are located between the Kwilu and Loange Rivers in Bandundu province and the eastern Pende villages are scattered along the Kasai River north of Tshikapa in Kasai Province.The masks the Pende used, however, were not carved in imitation of the masks of the Congolese peoples from whom they acquired the tradition. Rather the carving style reflected an existing Pende aesthetic which could now find expression in a new ritual context. Pende art is primarily one of sculpture. Masks, the mihango or speakers' staffs, large statues placed on the roofs of chiefs' huts, ikboko or amulets of ivory or nuts, and adze handles are among the objects produced by Pende sculptors. Most writers on African art, however, focus on the masks, specifically those of the Katundu region, a chiefdom located between the Kwilu and Loange Rivers. Although Pende masks could be carved by any mbembo or blacksmith, several families of carvers lived in Katundu and their fame gradually attracted apprentices from elsewhere in the Pende region to study with them. As Father Leon de Sousberghe observed in L'art Pende, the most thorough study of Pende art to date, the style of Katundu is the most original, the most characteristic, and the most easily identifiable of all Pende styles.5 And it is, of course, from Katundu that the museum's Pende mask comes.The first analysis of Katundu style was made by Frans Olbrechts, the late director of the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale at Tervuren, Belgium.6 As described by Olbrechts, the face of a Katundu Pende mask is dominated by a bulging forehead. Typically, tribal scarification marks are placed over the nose and high on the cheeks. The eyebrows form a continuous line, often connected to the ears. Below this line the eyelids are cast down over sunken cheeks. The V-shaped mouth points either up or down, and the teeth are carefully filed to points.Museya, a light-colored softwood, was the traditional medium chosen by Pende sculptors for the masks, according to Adriaen vanden Bossche, who described the carving process as he saw it practiced in the 1940s.7 Most of the carving was done with two tools: an adze for the basic shaping and a small knife for detail work. Once the carving had been completed, a red-hot knife blade was used to blacken some areas of the surface and to make the small holes through which raffia fibers could be inserted. Rough areas of the wood were rubbed smooth with a stone and pigments applied with a small stick. The traditional colors used were the reddish brown (tukula) made from powdered cainwood, white (mpembe) made from kaolin, and black (ndembe from charcoal.There are two major types of Pende masks: minganji and mbuya. Minganji, woven or braided from fibers of the raffia palm, are worn by the guards at the mukanda camp. Few in type and restricted in provenance, they may also appear at solemn village occasions such as the investiture of a chief. Minganji are things of power or magic, say the Pende; mbuya are for games.8 Mbuya also participate in the mukanda rites, but they enjoy a much greater distribution in Pende territory than do the minganji, and there are many more types. Sousberghe describes mbuya representing the chief, the killer, the old maid, the palm-wine pourer, the pygmy, the clown, the prostitute, the woman who prepares the poison for killing fish, the epileptic who falls in the fire and burns part of his face, and the three mysterious longbeards.9 Accounts written by European observers of Pende mukanda dances suggest that from a dozen to thirty mbuya types may once have been known.10 Over the years western Pende sculptors have created new types of mbuya and discarded other, less popular subjects, but the masks almost always represent village characters and seldom include animals or anthropomorphic beings.11 In addition to the role they play in mukanda rites, also take part in a very popular village theater, whose repertoire of plays offers commentary on Pende society.During the mukanda rites, a group of Pende boys is taken from the village to a special hut constructed in the forest. There, after being circumcised, they remain segregated for a period of months while older men teach them the traditions, myths, and enchantment tales of Pende culture. They learn how to carve the mbuya, although in practice that task is usually reserved for the mbembo or the Katundu carvers. The dance steps and costumes for each mbuya differ and these too they learn. Girls are never included in the mukanda nor are women allowed near the hut at all, other than one aged female who is permitted to serve the meals. At one time, as noted by Major M. W. Hilton-Simpson, who accompanied the Hungarian explorer Emil Torday to the Congo in 1907-9, women were not even supposed to see the masks:In every village we passed through we took all the opportunities we could of purchasing curios, among which we secured specimens of the curious wooden masks and palm cloth dresses in which the Bapende boys array themselves for the ceremony of initiation when they enter man's estate. During this ceremony, which lasts several days, the lads have to spend all their time in the forest, or in the bush, and are obliged to keep out of sight of other people. The purchase of one of these masks might easily have led us into trouble, for one of our boys who belonged to another tribe and was quite unversed in Bapende customs, carried the thing about the villages exposed to the public gaze, a proceeding which caused a great deal of indignation on the part of the Bapende, who firmly believe that if a woman sets eyes on one of these masks she will die. Luckily no women happened to be passing at the time, so we were soon able to soothe the ruffled feelings of the natives.12The mukanda camps used to last for a rather long period, longer than the few days noted by Hilton-Simpson. Today the Pende are obliged to schedule a shorter version of the mukanda which will not conflict with school attendance or other obligations of modern life.13At the end of the mukanda term the boys return to the village wearing mbuya masks. The procession and dances of the mbuya celebrate their new status as adult members of Pende society. Later they may also wear the small ivory ikhoko or amulets as symbols of their participation in the mukanda rites. The ikhoko reproduce in miniature well-known Pende mask types such as the chief and the three longbeards.Like virtually all African masks the wooden face of the mbuya is only part of an entire costume. Raffia fronds hung from the holes placed around the outer edges of the mask. Attached to the top of the mask was a wig woven of raffia and dyed black. The wig was arranged in imitation of Pende hair styles and served to further conceal the wearer's identity. The dancer might wear a costume of braided or woven raffia, European clothing, or, as in Hilton-Simpson's photograph, a barkcloth dress (figure 2).14 Depending on the mask being worn the dancer might carry a flywhisk, staff, or rattle with which he could gesture as he danced to the drumbeat of his special music. And, of course, no matter what the sex of the mask, the dancer who wore it was always a man.These attributes and elements of costume made complete identification of the mask possible. For, although some mbuya could be recognized immediately by their faces alone (the clown, the epileptic with his twisted face, the white-faced prostitute), there has always been confusion over which of the three longbearded masks was which. According to the Pende, giwoyo, kindjinga, and muyombo were all ancient mask types with long beards which could only be differentiated when seen worn during the dance. Each of the three represented a solemn concept, one that demanded respect and veneration from its viewers. In the order of the dance, as given by Sousberghe, the longbeards would perform soon after tundu the clown and mbangu the epileptic had finished (figure 3).15 Thus, during the dance it would have been obvious which longbeard was which, but the moment the dancer had placed the mask and costume in their place of secrecy the problem of identification once more became difficult.For masks collected many years ago, it is nearly impossible to obtain information necessary to identify them. This is the case with the Institute's Pende mbuya. The true name of its longbearded personage may never be known. That it is an unusually large example of an mbuya in classic Katundu style is, however, obvious. The hallmarks of the style-bulging forehead, continuous eyebrow line, and tribal scarification marks-can all be noted. These scarifications (the three parallel lines in mid-forehead and the triangular spots located between eye and ear), the reddish brown color of the face which represents the tone of the tukula dye favored by the Pende for both hair and skin coloring, and the teeth carefully filed into points are other aspects of the Pende canon of beauty.16Compositionally, the mask is based on V-forms, which probably indicate an aspect of Pende aesthetic. The Vs begin at the top of the head with what seem at first glance to be ears, but are in all probability a representation of an old Pende hairstyle. Pende men often shaved parts of their heads and then fashioned the remaining hair into conical tufts with oil, tukula, and even brass nails.17 The mbuya of both the chief and the killer often feature such tufted hairstyles either carved in the wood of the mask or made of raffia fiber attached as a wig. The Vs continue their rhythmic progression through the bulging browline and the subtler shape of the downcast eyelids to the whitened mouth carved open to reveal the pointed teeth. A sharply pointed chin is emphasizes by a wide band of white which separates the face from the gaily patterned beard. Here the Vs become triangles of red, white, and black arranged in V-shaped bands. The pattern of the beard is ended by wider V-shaped bands of color from the center of which a knob protrudes. The knob was used to attach the skins of small animals such as the genet or civet to the mask.18When a dancer donned the giwoyo, muyombo, or kindjinga, the drums began to beat a slow, solemn step (figure 4).19 The Pende consider all three longbeards as old mask types connected to even older rites involving the planting of millet and the hunting of certain animals. Sousberghe was told that when successful hunters returned to the village with a load of small animals or birds, they sang the "song of the giwoyo."20 Even the slow turns of the masked dancer have been interpreted by the Pende as moves similar to those a hunter might make as he looked for targets in the forest. A Pende description of the dance of "Giwoyo, the beautiful man who dances on his knees" noted that the masked dancer carries two flywhisks, and that bits of raffia tied to his arms float in the rhythm of the dance.He wears a skirt of animal skins such as leopard, fox, mbuluku (dwarf antelope), monkey, and rabbit. He is very handsome. He slithers like a snake in the bush. Even those who have hidden money in secret places will go find it to give it to Giwoyo. First he stands up, then in the rhythm of the dance he falls to his knees. He dances for a long time on his knees.... This mask sways while it dances. Women, excited by the swinging movements of the mask, break their calabashes and give the contents to the mask. Sometimes he is given corn, millet, flour, manioc, even dishes, and glasses.When the mask is tired he exits on his knees while the women cry: "Yelele, yelele. Leave, brother. You are the most beautiful mask of all." They undress the mask in the bush. First they take off the mask, then they undo all the rest. Everything is put down and then tied into a package. All this time the women don't know if it (the dancer) is a man or a beast.21The description continues with the taboos concerning the identity of the individual wearing the mask and performing the dance. No woman is supposed to learn who the dancer is, even if she is his wife. Should a woman venture by the river while the dancer is undressing a fine is immediately exacted; either money or the killing of thirty goats or pigs is the punishment for, having learned "the secrets of the men." But the strictures enforced in Hilton-Simpson's day have been relaxed, and women and uncircumcised males can now watch and appreciate the dances of the mbuya.For Pende women and men the three longbearded masks represented beauty, authority, and historical tradition. Giwoyo, kindjinga, and muyombo served as a link with the past, a link emphasized in ceremonies of continuity and stability such as those of initiation. The significance of the Institute's Pende mask thus can be understood in terms of its educational and historical functions. It can be appreciated as a classic example of the justly famed Katundu style, the most important style of Pende art. Its size also suggests another function. The mask is larger than most of the other longbeards known. Its size may reflect the unique achievement of a carver who obtained an especially large and choice piece of wood. Or it may be that a mask of such grandeur was never intended to be worn, but rather to be hung on the walls of the mukanda hut. There it could serve as an ever-present symbol of the heritage of the Pende, embodying all the hallmarks of classic Pende art and having as a subject the basic traditions the mukanda rites were designed to inculcate as they helped Pende boys become men (figure 5).22Moira Harris, formerly an intern at the Institute, received her B.A. and M.A. degrees in art history from the University of Minnesota. She is currently involved in research on a newly discovered book of Kiowa Indian drawings from Fort Marion.Author's note: I would like to thank Professor Roy Sieber, Indiana University, and Professor John T. Flanagan, University of Illinois, for making available materials without which my research could not have been completed. Ellen Bradbury, former Curator of Primitive Art, suggested the mask as a topic for study.Endnotes
  1. Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), pp. 11, 192.
  2. Jan Vansina, "Initiation Rituals of the Bushong," in Peoples and Cultures of Africa, ed. Elliot P. Skinner (New York: Doubleday/Natural History Press, 1973), pp. 304-325. Vansina was initiated by the Bushong, the central group of the Kuba peoples, in the Kasai District of Zaire in 1953.
  3. G. L. Haveaux, "La tradition historique des Bapende orientaux," Institut royal colonial Belge, section des sciences morales et politiques, memoires (Brussels, 1954), collection 8, vol. 38, fasc. 1, p. 50.
  4. Ibid., p. 27.
  5. Leon de Sousberghe, L'art Pende (Brussels: Academie Royale des Beaux Arts, 1958), vol. 9, fasc. 2, p. 24.
  6. Frans Olbrechts, Les arts plastiques du Congo beige (Brussels: Editions Erasme, 1959), p. 48-49.
  7. Adriaen vanden Bossche, "La sculpture de masques Bapende," Brousse 1 (1950): 11-15.
  8. Sousberghe, L 'art Pende, p. 30.
  9. Ibid., p. 31.
  10. Ibid., p. 33. Two Belgian territorial administrators collected Pende mbuya and noted details of the dances they witnessed. Delhaise (in 1924) listed twenty-five masks and Bomans (in 1941) noted twelve, some of which were duplicates. In 1951 Father de Sousberghe learned from yet another territorial agent that forty-two masks were known from the Kilembe sector. Sousberghe also observed (p. 51) that some masks that were precisely identified, for example the tukula dyemaker and the orphan, have disappeared from use, while masks like the longbeards, whose interpretation is somewhat more vague, continued to be carved and worn.
  11. Animals are more commonly found as subjects for mabuya masks in eastern Pende sculpture, which is also more geometric and abstract than that practiced in Katundu.
  12. Major M.W. Hilton-Simpson, Land and Peoples of the Kasai (London: Constable and Co., Ltd., 1911), pp. 282-283.
  13. Emery Kabongo Kanundowe, "L'avenir de l'initiation traditionelle Bantu dans la Republique du Zaire," Africa (Roma) 29, 2 (June 1974): 178.
  14. Father de Sousberghe identifies the masks in the photograph as kindjinga, a longbeard, and tundu, the clown, from Mbanda village along the Lufishi River. The tundu mask was collected by Torday for the British Museum.
  15. The masked dancer in the photograph holds a flywhisk in one hand, and has tied seed pods around his ankles to accent the steps of his dance.
  16. Hilton-Simpson, Land and Peoples, p. 280. The major reported that the Bapende wore their hair "in little tassels resembling a mop on the top of their heads, and it is by no means uncommon to find those whose hair is not of sufficient length to admit of its being dressed in this fashion wearing wigs." Torday and Hilton-Simpson studied the tukula dye and discovered that it came from a tree whose wood was hard, heavy, and maroon in color. When rotten the wood was ground to a powder on a stone, then mixed with palm oil and applied to skin, hair and clothing. Camwood is still used for the same purposes in the Congo.
  17. Jean vanden Bossche, "L'art plastique chez les Bapende," Brousse 2 (1950): 8.
  18. The skins of these nocturnal forest creatures swung in an interesting counterpoint to the rustle of the raffia fibers as the dancer moved, but there was probably a symbolic reason for their use as well. Albert Maesen noted that jackal and genet skins attached to minganti masks served as allusions to everything maleficent, "to night, darkness, insecurity, and death." (Albert Maesen, "Un masque du type Gitenga des Pende Occidentaux du Zaire," Africa-Tervuren 21, no. 3-4 (1975): 116.) Thus elements of the costume also reminded viewers of the contrasts of death and rebirth, darkness and light, the jungle and the village.
  19. Here the dancer wearing the muyombo mask carries both a stick and a flywhisk. His headdress includes a raffia fiber wig and feathers which wave as he turns in his path through the village.
  20. Sousberghe, L'art Pende, p. 35.
  21. Ndambi Munamuhega, Les masques Pende, CEEBA Publications, series 2, vol. 23, 2:137-143. This reference was kindly supplied by Huguette Van Geluwe, Department of Ethnology, Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, Belgium.
  22. This mask was collected in 1968-1970 by Henry Goertz. Students from Bethel College working on service-study projects in Zaire collected 149 contemporary masks from the Pende of Katundu and Kasai areas which are now in the collections of the Kauffman Museum in North Newton, Kansas. This longbeard (Kauffman Museum A-30) shows the survival of traditional form in the longbeard mask.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. African, Zaire, Pende culture
    XIX century
    Mbuya Mask
    Wood with black, red, and white pigments, 51
    The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund, 76.4
  2. Masked Pende dancers
    Photo from M. W. Hilton-Simpson, Land and Peoples of the Kasai (London, 1911), opposite p. 283.
  3. Muyombo or Giwoyo figure from the village of Nioka-Kakese, Chiefdom of Katundu
    Photo from Leon de Sousberghe, L'art Pende (Brussels, 1958), ill. 27, by Congo presse.
  4. Muyombo figure from the chiefdom of Kahungu
    Photo from Leon de Sousberghe, L'art Pende (Brussels, 1958), ill. 22.
  5. Ngeleko
    Zaire, Pende culture, Kamuania village
    Muyombo Mask
    Kauffman Museum, North Newton, Kansas
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Source: Moira F. Harris, "A Pende Mbuya from Zaire," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 63 (1976-1977): 116-123.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009