Ritual Messengers

The Peoples of Central Africa

| The Peoples of the Kongo | Kongo Masks | Maternity Statues | Chief's staffs | Nkisi nkondi Statues |

Face mask. Kongo (Yombe). Lower Zaïre region. Wood, pigments.
© Africa-Museum, Tervuren

  Kongo Masks

Contrary to other African peoples the Kongo did not have a strong mask tradition. Face masks like the examples here — the female with the hair ribbon and the male with the beard — were worn by the nganga diphomba (ritual specialist or diviner). There is some incongruity between the masks' serene expressions and the term ngobudi that refers to them, which means something frightening, a spirit or power that induces terror. White, the main colour in the masks, symbolizes the spirits of the dead. The masks' faces have been rendered in a lifelike way, similar to the manner in which the heads of Kongo maternity statues are shaped.

Ndunga is the name given to the masked figure who wears a costume made of dried banana leaves or touraco feathers, and to the male society that played a ritual and political role in the coastal area of the ancient kingdom of Ngoyo. The ndunga society acted as a kind of secret police, responsible for keeping civil order. Its members had to maintain political stability, enforce laws and track down criminals such as thieves, sorcerers and murderers. Bandunga masks were worn to act out the will of ancestors and of the supernatural, whose verdict was irrefutable. The masks were also worn during dances held at the funerals of high-ranking people. The ndunga society has changed over time but a playful version of it still exists among the Kongo people.

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