Ritual Messengers

The Peoples of Central Africa

Caryatid stool. Pende. Bandundu/West Kasai, Zaïre. Wood.
© Africa-Museum, Tervuren

  The Mbuun, Hungaan, Pende and Holo

The ethnic groups whose art is shown here have much in common with the preceding groups, particularly the Yaka and Suku. All have been influenced to varying degrees as much by the culture of the eastern Kongo groups as by the Luunda. The Holo form a "hinge" group, from between the north (Suku and Pende) and the south (Tshokwe and Luunda), between Angola and Zaïre. The Mbala, Holo, Hungaan and Pende all share the tradition of erecting a giant female figure over the houses of chiefs.

Finally, all these groups, like the preceding ones, maintain the custom of mukanda. It is interesting to note, however, that while the significance of this circumcision ritual and its practice is similar throughout the Kwango groups, the masks that are worn for the occasion differ considerably in form and style from one ethnic group to another, and even from one region to the next within a single ethnic group.

The Pende world includes three cultural and — most importantly — stylistic groups: the Pende from the left bank of the Kwilu River, the central Pende and the Pende of the Kasai. The munyangi mask decorated with touraco feathers is characteristic of the Kasai Pende. The central Pende of the Gatundo chiefdom have developed their own easily recognizable style of mask known as katundu, which has triangular eyes with half-closed lids, a turned-up nose with slightly flattened nostrils, and most important an eyebrow that forms a "W" in reverse relief and continues under the eyes. This style is especially characteristic of mbuya-type masks, which were formerly worn at dances held at the close of mukanda. The Pende have fashioned marvelous miniature replicas called ikhoko. These ivory pendants played a therapeutic and protective role against certain dangers associated with the masks, warding off, in particular, evils likely to strike those who break the rules of the circumcision rites. The katundu style was so successful that the western Pende and a few neighbouring ethnic groups adopted its characteristics. Some works, such as the caryatid stool or the helmet mask from the left bank of the Kwilu River are, nonetheless, difficult to identify within the Pende mass and its immediate neighbours.

It is likely that the Mbuun anthropomorphic cup was associated with the enthronement of chiefs. It is almost certain that the palaver staff was used by Mbuun or Pende leaders or speakers during conflict resolution.

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