The Kuba kingdom, a confederation of different ethnic groups, dates from the sixteenth century. This wooden mask, carved by either a Bushoong or Ngeende carver, both major subgroups within the Kuba confederation, would have been used in the initiation rites of young males as they pass to adulthood, or as a dance mask. The mask is notable for the particular treatment of the eyes, which are surrounded by holes carved in a deeply recessed socket. The flaring nostrils of the nose and the stylized mouth are common features in this type of mask; the sloping forehead is extended by fabric that likely covered a structure made of raffia or cane. Masks such as these were frequently painted with the traditional geometric designs of the Kuba peoples, but if this mask was once painted, the pigments have been lost over time.
Headgear—including hats, hairpins, and headdresses—was one of the main insignia awarded to male Kuba titleholders in order to distinguish rank. Artists used hats and hairstyles to express a work’s position within the hierarchy of masks. This mask’s elaborate headdress—formed by a fabric-covered cane in a U-shape—is that of a high-ranking male warrior. White cowrie shells symbolize prestige and wealth, while the spray of brown and white-speckled feathers represents high titleholders. These masks were worn by masqueraders at initiations and burials to signify elders’ knowledge.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).