92-18 | African Art

Mask - Songye

Mask of the Bwadi bwa Kifwebe Society, Late 19th century

Wood, pigment, fiber, hide, and shell
4 feet 6 1/2 inches x 28 1/2 inches (138.43 x 72.39 cm)

Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust through the George H. and Elizabeth O. Davis Fund

Geographic Origin: Africa
Democratic Republic of Congo

Gallery Location: L9

Gallery Label

Gallery Label
Female Mask Democratic Republic of the Congo, Songye peoples Late 19th century Wood, pigment, fiber, hide and shell

This female mask was danced for Kifwebe masquerades, which unleash sorcery's menacing power to reinforce the authority of chiefs and elders. Masked male and female dancers are embodiments of supernatural beings from the forest wilderness. Materials and other characteristics of this costume-tree fiber, the horn-like projection and facial striations-suggest a forest antelope's horn and white markings. In contrast to male maskers' fearsome, unrestrained movements, the subdued movements of the female masker express benevolent, mystical power. Female masks activated with sacred white clay express ritual purity, wisdom and fertility.

Purchase: Nelson Trust through the George H. and Elizabeth O. Davis Fund, 92-18

Gallery Label
Female Mask late 19th century Wood, pigment, fiber and hide 54-1/2 x 28-1/2 inches (138.4 cm) Songye (Zaire)

Purchase: the George H. and Elizabeth O. Davis Fund [F92-18]

This rare female kifwebe masquerade figure still retains much of its original costume, including its head covering, prominent horn and beard. The bold striated patterning on the face of the kifwebe masks suggest to the Songye various animal imagery. For example, the strong vertical banding depicted on the forehead and nose of the mask resembles the markings found on the forehead and muzzle of the bushbuck, a small antelope widely found in Central Africa. The extension from the top of the mask refers to an antelope horn and the projecting mouth of the mask suggests the jaws of a crocodile or, alternately, the beak of a bird.

In performance, the masked dancer's movements are a combination of human and animal attributes. Although the kifwebe dancer walks upright and dances with refined, controlled movements, the overall performance style is one of threatening and unpredictable movements that suggest the character of birds and forest creatures. The falsetto voice of the masked dancer alternates with growling and other loud sounds, adding to the kifwebe mask's transformative power during performance. Songye masks appear at the investiture and death of important titled individuals and during initiation rituals of the masking society.

Image Permission

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art respects all valid claims of copyright by artists, or by their respective families, estates, foundations, or representatives.  

The copyright status of individual works and artists must be investigated carefully by anyone wishing to make potential use of these images. The Museum does not warrant that the use of individual works will not infringe on the rights of third parties. It is the individual’s responsibility to determine and satisfy copyright or other use restrictions before copying, transmitting, or making other use of protected items beyond that allowed by "fair use," as such term is understood under the United States Copyright Act.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art holds the right to assert its copyright in all one-of-a-kind works that it owns that are not explicitly covered by other claims.

For more information, click here Rights and Reproductions