Kifwebe Mask

 The Kifwebe mask is generally associated with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has been used to police society and establish and enforce norms. Kifwebe masks with lighter faces are generally understood to serve as female representations – though they would be worn by a male. The mask to the left, is from the Songya People, it’s provenance is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was made in the 19th – 20th century, and is made of wood and pigment. This Kifwebe mask is in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The detailing and craftsmynship of the Kifwebe mask is what draws me. The face is so evocative, the features stylized and the pattern of carving so beautiful. Indeed, in it’s particular cultural context, the kifwebe mask isn’t intended to be seen as “beautiful.” It’s function is to serve as a reminder of social norms and ideals. When considering African objects or art, one must consider function first – what purpose was this object used for?; what meaning is it intended to convey?; how is it used and in what context? – and beauty comes after context and meaning. In other words, African objects that in the West, we call art (and indeed are beautiful, artistic, and considered overwhelmingly as art) were in many cases with older African objects, first created to serve a function. The fact that the object is also extraoridinarily beautiful, created with exquisite form and wonderful lines, is part of the effortless integration of beauty and art into daily life, that I see in African art.

I love the Kifwebe mask at left. The one below and to the right is also wonderful.  I’m struck by the alternating color, the elegantly shaped and prominent stylized eyes, and the harmony of the work. The sense of geometry, form, and placement is superb.  This mask from the Songye people of Zaire is made of wood, pigment, cord, beading and polychrome.

Here is an up close detail of an eye of the Kifwebe mask – in this view you can see the preciseness of the carving, and the use of pigment.

Below is another Kifwebe mask, with much darker pigment and raffia for hair. It has a decidely different look than the other masks – is less streamlined, and offers a diverse look at the Kifwebe style. 



4 Responses to “Kifwebe Mask”

  1. dannyhageman Says:

    “When considering African objects or art, one must consider function first, beauty second.”

    What a new and exciting twist to the way in one views art. Our current day drugy, avante-garde, Hollywood, American way has corrupted the minds of artists into thinking that unless art is completely out there in the abstract world, it is not interesting. How many artists today create with a function? Not enough.

  2. Loved these masks.

  3. MarilynnBh Says:

    I have a question about Kifwebe masks. Why were they made of wood? Did wood had a special meaning? Was it precious or just a regular item? And did they get it from near or far?

    • Hi there –

      From my understanding, largely they are made from wood because of the availability of the material. But it is also important to consider that the kifwebe mask would be worn and danced. A heavier material would have made this quite difficult.

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