Eastern Songye, Democratic Republic of Congo; wood, white pigment; 17″ high.
Kifwebe masks were made as a means of controlling social behavior and neutralizing disruptive elements in the tribal society. These masks appeared at the installation and death of a chief, and at initiation rites of young men as well as other significant occasions. According to African mask specialists, Kifwebe masks are differentiated by gender and by their shape and size but also by the basic surface coloration and the decorative design and patterns on the surface. The masks said to represent a female are rarer than masks depicting a man. Normally a band of mask-wearers is made up of one female mask and a number of male masks, and they would wear masks supplemented by a woven costume and a long raffia beard, and dance at various ceremonies.
The mask shown here embodies the rare female type of Kifwebe known as “kikashi”, which in contrast to the male type lacks a high comb extending over the center of the head. It is characterized by a fine grooved surface extending from below the half-shut eyes and between the protruding triangular nose to the jutting slightly conical-shaped head. The grooved surface is painted over with white kaolin. When the mask is repeatedly worn, this white partially worn off, exposing the natural wood. This exposure heightens the white/brown contrast and reveals the engraved striations. A vertical stripe running from the top of the head to between over the nose divided the face in two. The eyes are lidded in black; the protruding rectangular-shaped mouth is closed and has a raised bow-shaped pattern across it.
The use of white on the mask symbolize positive concepts such as purity and peace, moon and light. Female masks essentially reflect positive forces and exude beauty, tranquility and inner peace. They appear principally in dances held at night, such as during lunar ceremonies, and at the investiture or death of a ruler.