Ritual Messengers

Featured artifacts

| Ritual figures | Mask | Stool | African symbols | Sources |

Mbangu mask. Central Pende. Bandundu, Zaïre. Wood, pigments, fibre.
© Africa-Museum, Tervuren



This mask falls into the category of mbuya masks, which are used to represent different characters. This one, mbangu, represents a cursed man, someone who has been struck by sickness or has had deformities cast upon him by sorcerers. Although his face shows signs of nerve paralysis, features characteristic of the katundu style in the Pende region are still apparent: note the eyebrow line in the shape of an inverted "W"; the triangular nose and pointed chin.


The mask comes from the Central Pende region in the Bandundu province, south of Zaïre.


The mask shows that a curse can strike — like lightning — without warning. Onlookers see one of their own kind who has been rendered powerless, unable to shake off the curse that has struck him.


In the past, mbuya masks were used to mark the end of circumcision rituals but today they play a more festive role. Within a group, actors take turns to dance and set the stage for different characters to appear: the chief, the lawmaker, the hunter, the village flirt, the priest, the witchdoctor, etc. Each is characterized by a specific dance step and a distinct rhythm. Mbangu appears as a hunchback who has been struck by an arrow. The masked dancer develops the dance in concert with the audience, who mock him while at the same time chanting an accompaniment.

Biombo mask. West Kasai, Zaïre. Wood, pigments, headed nails.
© Africa-Museum, Tervuren


Many African societies see masks as mediators between the living world and the supernatural world of the dead and other entities. When carried or worn during a dance, the mbangu mask does not exert magic powers. However, certain mbuyu masks, such as those representing the chief, the hunter and the female mask Pota, have the power to heal when worn during a dance performed around a sick person. Someone healed in this way might carry a miniature ivory mask, a replica of the mask that healed him.

Lukwakongo mask. Lega. Kivu, Zaïre. Wood, pigments, fibre.
© Africa-Museum, Tervuren


In producing a mask, a sculptor's aim is to depict a person's psychological and moral characteristics rather than provide a portrait. The sculptor begins by cutting a piece of wood and leaving it to dry in the sun; if it cracks, it cannot be used for a mask. African sculptors see wood as a complex living material and believe each piece can add its own feature to their work. Having made certain the wood is suitable, the sculptor begins, using an azde to carve the main features, a chisel to work on details and a rough leaf to sand the piece. He then paints the mask with pigments such as charcoal (to give a black colour), powders made from vegetable matter or trees (for ochre/earth tones) or mineral powders like clay (to give a white colour).

In this mask, vegetable fibres have been used for hair and a beard. The black eyelids have smallpox marks on them and the black side of his face suggests that a fit of epilepsy caused him to fall into the fire. Note that unlike our own cultures, African peoples often symbolize death by the colour white rather than black. At the same time, many African cultures see white as the colour that links them to their ancestors, and it can therefore have a positive meaning.

Pendant. Hungaan. Bandundu, Zaïre. Ivory.
© Africa-Museum, Tervuren


Mbuya masks have three main functions. They can:

  • play a therapeutic or healing role (some masks can be carved as ivory miniatures and worn as pendants);
  • act as a mirror of society (a mask can represent, for example, the good fortune of a woman who has given birth in her later years); or
  • be used for entertainment in non-ritual festivities (a more modern use).


Do you believe the mbuya mask (top of page) was the source of inspiration behind Picasso's famous 1907 painting Les demoiselles d'Avignon?

1. Yes. Art specialists have reason to believe that this mask inspired not only Picasso's Demoiselles but also other later cubist works.
True   False

2. No. There is no connection between African masks and cubism.
True   False

main page previous index next