Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo

, 20th century

Wood, pigments

11 3/4 x 11 1/2 in. (30 x 29 cm)


About this artwork

Pende masks represent a vast array of different anthropomorphic and zoomorphic characters. This mask is made of wood with red, black, and white paint, and may be a type called mbuya. Typical of masks from the region, the eyes on this mask are semi-closed, and a ridge or painted line runs down the center of the forehead; the eyebrows are joined to create a shape described as an “inverted ‘W.”

The back of the mask is painted with small alternating black and white triangles -- a design also seen on Kuba objects, which the Kuba are said to have borrowed from the Pende. The hairstyle, a black top-knot that projects from the top of the head, and a sharply-defined hairline are also typical of Pende figures. At the bottom of the mask, below the chin, is a sort of ruff that projects outward; perhaps this was the support for a beard and would have been covered with raffia or cloth.

The neighboring Kuba kingdom is known today for its “masterpieces,” but the Kuba attribute their skill to the Pende, who were seen as superior artists. The Pende did not make the elaborate prestige items so appreciated by the Kuba, but instead their creativity and imagination went into making masks and creating complex masked performances. They also made other objects that they believed incarnated spirit power.

Mbuya masks were primarily used in circumcision rituals where young men learned about the use of the masks and other knowledge that was the privilege of men. Aside from circumcisions, the masks had a role in rituals performed at the installation of a chief, and at funerals. They also appeared in performances that used humor and bawdy songs to make social commentary.

The mbuya masks sometimes depicted  well-known characters from village life – the chief and diviners as well as clowns, hunters, a woman looking for a husband, a flirtatious young woman, the palm wine tapper, the “chief” of the dance floor, and so on. Each type of mask was associated with its own style of dance and costume so a mask had to be seen in a performance to ascertain its identity. During performances, the masked dancers made commentaries on current social situations and, aside from the entertainment value, the performances had an educational value. They taught people about correct behavior and reinforced Pende values.

Sarah Brett-Smith. “The Doyle Collection of African Art.” Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, 1983, Vol. 42, No. 2. pp. 2+8-34 Published by: Princeton University Art Museum Stable.

Canadian Museum of History. “Mask. ”Ritual Messengers - Featured artifacts. Accessed March 15, 2023.

Yale University Art Gallery. “Mask (Mbuya).” Collections : African art. Accessed March 15, 2023.

Western (Kwilu) Pende, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Accessed March 15, 2023.