Although the Kuba people have had few scholarly studies devoted to there innate artistic abilities, there are recognizable Kuba pieces of art work that exist today. There are up to twenty different masks that have different functions among different groups of Kuba people. There masks vary in size, color, decoration and use, although, the similarities are what make these masks so definable. This particular mask is called a Mwashamboy mask, made in approximately the middle of the eighteenth century (Vansina 216).
This particular Kuba mask is notable because of the elephant trunk on the front of the mask. These masks are made to represented and honor the king. They show royal status along with power. One line is differentiated by the greater number of cowries on his mask and other clothing (Vansina 214). They are used for less royal purposes in the peripheral territories of the Kuba kingdom but still exist in most of the kingdom’s of the Kuba people. The emphasis on royalty is more predominate in the kingdom’s capital. The tradition of masking was born in the kingdom’s capital and extended out to other groups and neighboring kingdom’s during the expansion known as “the Age of Chiefs”(Vansina 208). Many of the Kuba styles originated in the capital and extended to other chiefdom’s in Bushoong villages. Another important development at this time was the use of different geometric shapes. The origin of these shapes is not known but thought to be originally created within the Kuba culture. Many of the influences in these designs and shapes do seem to represent plants and animals, but have many variations as well. These geometric patterns tend to follow geometric motifs of angular or flowing lines and close to two hundred patterns can be recognized today.
Practically every object in Kuba culture is lavish and decorated for a reason. According to Vansina it is said to be that the earlier Kuba masks were less lavish. The focus of the masquerade was the song and substance of the tradition rather than the ornate decoration. As more materials became available with the expansion of the Kuba culture the masks became more detailed and contained more complex patterns and variation in design.
There is almost no doubt in past research that these fancy textiles were related to differentiation in social classes. The most predominant surface pattern used on this mask is triangular. These triangles repeat and change direction, in a one hundred and eighty degree turn, among every other triangle. There is no space between the triangles and there is little variation in size and the pattern crosses the mask. These patterns make the designs unique and recognizable as the separate different parts of this particular mask. There is also a specific pattern of triangles that angle together to make a pattern of a diamond shape but this pattern in unique to the Kuba people. This particular patter is called mbul bwinn in Kuba culture and is used in other aspects of the society. Mbul bwinn is used on clothing, architecture and textiles, but has certain implications for who uses it. This design is reserved only for people of high status. It is most predominantly used in architecture although is represented in the mask itself as well.
These masks are always a part of an entire costume. The costume can consist of bark cloth or raffia cloth, they have different objects attached to them to symbolize important aspects in their society. These cloths are also covered with cowry shells and are extremely decorative to symbolize the royal people. The more cowry shells on the mask the more divine the person was who was wearing the mask became. The cowry shell was the currency of the Kuba people up until the beginning of the 20th century and represent wealth in most art work (Vansina 172). The cowry shells remind the people that this person is a descendent of Woot and should be treated properly as royalty. Rows of cowry shells are attached to these masks to show an abundance of shells and therefore an abundance of wealth. At times there is a feather head dress attached to this mask that is made up of eagle or parrot feathers. There was no evidence of feathers ever being attached to this particular mask, but they are associated with the royal Kuba masks in different circumstances. All lavish decoration is usually an indication of royalty and status because the people of this kingdom do not have as lavish of a life style as the king.
This mask most likely used during an initiation ceremony. In Kuba culture the term for initiation itself is nkaan. (Vansina 204) The origin of this initiation is Kete and has many similarities to Kete culture but is not entirely Kete. The myth behind this ignition originates from the story of Woot. Woot is a figure that the Kuba people believed there culture derived from. They are known as “the children of Woot.” Woot was said to once be helpless lying on the ground. His sons began to mocked him, but his daughter helped him. He then decided to punish the sons by initiating them by instituting matrilinearity. This story is acted out in the initiation ritual where this mask was used. This idea derived from the 16th and 17th centuries but as this story was communicated many variations are present now in the 21st century (Vansina 205).
There is limited scholarship on certain areas of the Kuba culture despite there incredible lifestyle and works of art. Political organization can only be based upon a process fact model and little detail is actually known about the political organization of the Kuba people. The political organization of the Kuba people was based upon chiefs controlling there own kingdoms. Royalty is defined precisely in this culture and is thought to be divine in all aspects of life. As Kuba kingdom’s existed in close proximity the kingdoms gained interaction with one and other. As kingdoms grew there became less social rivalry and acceptance among different kingdoms in the Kuba culture. The acceptance could have been due to need for resources, change in rate of social rivalry, security in numbers or other productions of social change among each individual kingdom in combination with surrounding kingdoms.
The majority of art is done to honor or depict social and political hierarchy. Most of these pieces are used in initiation practices for young men. These masks are often referred to as the king’s mask although they are not worn by the king himself. The performer is said to embody kingship and to demonstrating the king’s status. This Mwashamboy mask is used for a dignified dance done by someone who is chosen by the king himself. These chosen people perform the royal Kuba masquerades and most often preformed in the kingdom’s capital. One thing that is similar throughout the different groups is that these masks are used during initiation ceremonies. Funerals are also an important time for masquerades in Kuba culture to titleholders, but specifics regarding funeral rituals are no longer available. History has not been documented in a written form and oral tradition in this regard is imprecise.
The elephant trunk on this mask is an interesting variant to traditional Kuba masks. These helmet shaped masks are believed to be most deviant. The mask symbolically transforms the performer and wearer of the mask, into the founding ancestor of Woot. Woot was obviously an important part of the Kuba culture considering the Kuba people call themselves “the children of Woot.” This variant in the mask shows that the Kuba people chose to use Woot symbolically in their art work and ceremonies. The elephant mask therefore personifies Woot to the Kuba people and is used in many rituals because of its divine power.