Deep in the Congo, at the darkest moment within a three-day long drug enhanced ritual, this mask is revealed to initiates as representing a being from another dimension, a collision of man, animal and spirit. And this one just sold for 500'000 dollars! 

Tribal African masks are highly sought after by artefact collectors and museums all over the western world, where they are generally appreciated only for their aesthetic qualities. To tribal insiders however, they are multi-interpretational matrixes of ancient ancestral knowledge, holding the secrets of creation and the otherworldly origins of mankind.


BackStory

Every year, more and more arts and crafts from the Congo appear in arts auctions fulfilling not the needs, but the desires of the rich and famous who decorate their homes with the rare artefacts. Only a few ever consider why so much Congo crafts are currently being offered for sale.

Hutu refugees at the UN's Goma camp.

The tribes of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have a tragic history filled with harsh colonial exploitation and brutal conflicts. Today, the DRC continues in its seemingly endless state of violence and poverty and since 1998 around 5.4 million people have died of war-related causes. 

Tribal people fight to maintain their traditional ways as millions of people have been displaced, food economies wrecked and children turned into soldiers to fight wars they know little about. 

 

In military areas in Angola and Congo, as well as in Zambian refugee camps, the tribal leaders still practice initiation, divination and healing rites. But some of the chiefs have had their authority challenged by modern governments with unsympathetic political agendas, but however repressed, they continue to represent traditional and sacred authority.


INTERPRETing the half million dollar mask

Masks are known as Kifwebe in both the Luba and Songye languages. Non-initiates cannot even begin to grasp the layers of significance given to these masks which allude to Congo cosmology and the perceived cycles of planets, animal breeding patterns and mythical heroes. Unlike modern masks, which are designed to frighten and amuse people, African ritual masks formerly served as agents of social control, enforcing allegiance to the rulers. Believed to be imbued with magical supernatural powers, even today, women and children are forbidden to see them outside rituals. 

The craft skills required to design and then create these masks was inherited and remains a fiercely guarded secret within family groups. Firstly, the choosing of raw material was ritualised and its preparation required knowledge of soaking and drying wood so that expansion and contraction all happened before etc creation of the mask.

Mask of elder; village kikomo, kiloshi chiefdom, Eastern Songye

This enchanting, dark and mesmeric artefact belongs to a small corpus of fifteen masks which integrate the exotic beauty of Luba with the hypnotic power of Songye art. The combination of Luba and Songye styles is typical for the border region between both people who believe they are related through a common ancestor called Kolongo. Kerchache (1993: 576) notes: "The history of the [Songye] is closely linked to the Luba's, to whom they are related through common ancestors.  According to tradition, Kongolo, the founder of the first Luba empire in the sixteenth century, was a [Songye].”

For reasons which will soon become apparent, this featured mask is not a representation of Kolongo, as is often asserted.

This particular mask is distinguished by four defining features:

  1. Convex forehead over a concave facial plane.

  2. Almond shaped downcast eyes.

  3. Broad band bisecting the forehead and continuing down the nose terminating in a sagittal tip.

  4. Fine-lined surface design in relief.  

Light coloured masks with striations and a black band running up the nose represent females, whereas those representing males are multicoloured, yet predominantly red, and the striations are generally bolder with larger crests. The largest are called kya noshi, which are the most powerful and feared masks only worn by elders. The crest-masks with higher and more prominent crests - are said to evoke a mountain and also represent the World Tree.

The striations on the featured mask recall animal stripes which invoke the striped bongo antelope. But to those in the know, they also refer to the Songye creation myth which recounts a complicated story of how humans emerged from a cavern. The grooves in the mask relate to the underworld of emergence and on another level they may also be identified with the roadway of the dead, which was trodden as the fallen awaited rebirth. 

The facial elements are most often associated with animals and it might be the case these oval shaped eyes were meant to resemble that of a crocodile. The known corpus of these masks totals 15, and they all measuring about 15 inches (38 cm) long. Five of these masks are distinguished by a complicated interwoven reliefs surrounding the mask's upper half. These five masks appear to be the work of a single artist.

Selection of male and female Songye ritual masks.

The nose in most instances is triangular and the mouth is always protruding and geometrically shaped. The Songye tribe use this type of mask during ceremonies, and at the funeral processions of important leaders. According to the peoples of the Songye tribe when certain individuals of the Kifwebe society wear the mask along with the costume and raffia beard they are believed to gain magical powers that can manipulate evil spirits and control nature.

'Giant Masks from the Congo. A Belgian Jesuit ethnographic heritage', a temporary (pop-up) exhibition from the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren, Belgium) 2015.


CONCLUSION

The mask featured in this article was sold at Sotheby's auctioneers in London for almost half a million dollars. It is doubtful its new owners in New York will be thinking to much about the struggles of its creator in Africa. One thing is a certainty, where you find armed conflict in Africa you are assured to also find gold, diamonds and or oil.

Unfortunately it will take a lot more than intricately carved masks and rituals to feed the unscrupulous greed of men with gold their sights. Tribes people in Africa are now producing low quality masks to satisfy spiritual thirsty tourists and the market has become awash with replicas and fakes. It really is a beautiful artefact, and I'm sure it looks great in its display case, but I bet it looked better in Africa. And that half million dollars, for one mask, could have changed the lives of thousands of people and gone a long way to helping save the tribal people of the Congo from decimation.

If you can afford to buy a real African ritual mask, or even a replica, could you please be mindful and not, rather... 

 

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