Tabwa mask from the Stanley Collection

As seen in the book:
Art and Life in Africa
by Christopher D. Roy

University of Iowa Museum of Art

I found this mask to be especially interesting and thought the write up done in the book was very informative and thought I would share it with others.

Click on images to see full size version
TABWA, Zaire and Zambia
Beaded mask / Glass beads, leather, rooster feathers, monkey pelts
H. 88.9 cm. (35")
From the Stanley Collection
University of Iowa Museum of Art
This mask was collected in the mid-1970’s by Marc Felix near the northern end of Lake Mweru, where the Luba, Tabwa, eastern Lunda, and
Bemba cultural spheres converge. The mask may be associated with mbudye, a secret society that celebrates the mythical charter and values of
Luba royalty (M. Nooter 1990). More specifically, its iconography is an elaboration of the simpler beaded headdresses worn by diviners of the
bulumbu possession cult found among the Tabwa and the Eastern Luba. Such headdresses are called nyaka, or pangolin, from a metaphorical
association between the beaded triangles and the similarly shaped scales of that animal. Like this mask, bulumbu headdresses are often
surmounted by feathers and have animal pelts attached to the top that cover the wearer's head and hang down his or her back (Roberts I988b;

The white spiral at the center of the forehead represents the "eye" of Kibawa, an earth spirit that the Eastern Luba associate with the culture hero
Mbidi Kiluwe and that the Tabwa feel is the keeper of their dead. Kibawa's cavern is near the Luvua River in the general area where this mask
was collected, and was visited by Luba and Tabwa as an oracle early in this century. The Tabwa now feel that Kibawa sends forth the spirits that
possess bulumbu adepts during seances that are convened to seek explanations and cures for illness and other misfortunes. The center of the
forehead covered by the beaded spiral is felt to be the locus of wisdom and prophetic vision.

The spiral eye of Kibawa also represents the moon. The event of possession by a spirit issuing from the depths of Kibawa's cavern is called "the
rising of a new moon," the name Tabwa also give to the triangular motif so important to their art. The new moon and other symbols reflect a
message of enlightenment, courage, and the dawning of hope after a period of "obscurity." The rooster feathers along the top of the mask refer
to the beginning of the new day (marked by a rooster crowing) and so, figuratively, to a life endowed with new insight. In a related manner, the
white chalk with which bulumbu adepts cover their faces is "moonlight," which conveys a sense of purity and receptivity as well as enlightened
vision (Roberts 1990b).

The isosceles triangles on either side of the spiral are the "doors" of possessing spirits that emanate from Kibawa's cavern; other triangles echo
these and repeat the "rising of the new moon" motif. The choice of bead colors (especially those outside the Tabwa primary triad of white, red,
and black) is determined by availability and aesthetics rather than esoteric symbolism. The pelts attached to the mask are of the arboreal blue
monkey {Cercopithecus mitis); it is hoped that a bulumbu spirit will "mount" the person and possess him or her, just as the blue monkey occupies
the highest branches of a tree. This idea is dramatized in dance, as the field photographs of Marc Felix show; with every leap of the masked
dancer, the blue monkey pelts seem to rise up and then settle back down, reestablishing their ascendancy atop the dancer's head.
I also ran across this interesting Tabwa mask from the book:
Remnants of Ritual
(This book is also viewable online -
click here to open the website for the book in a new window)
Mask, Tabwa; D.R.C. Congo
Cloth, string, beads; H. 14"

Beaded masks surmounted with a variety of colored feathers and worn with a pelt of blue monkey were
used in the Bulumbu possession cult of the Tabwa. Such masks were worn during trance in the
personification of Ngulu earth spirits. The row of diamond patterns on the beaded forehead can also be
found on nkaka headbands; the patterns are said to signify the rising of a new moon, although such masks
allow a great deal of variation in their decoration. The interplay of the color of beaded sections is
thoughtfully handled in this example. Interestingly, the upper portion of the mask faithfully recreates an
nkaka headband, thus tangibly linking the mask to divination practices.