Mask History

The mask was created as a helmet used in initiation ceremonies; the ceremonies include those relating to the founding and creation of the Kuba kingdom as well as the ruling family.  The mask to the left, found in the MFA in Boston, MA, looks into the story of Mboom who was the brother of the founder, Mwaash aMbooy, of the Kuba kingdom who lusted for his brother’s wife.  The other possibility of interpretation for this mask is that it holds nature spirits, commoners, or Mbuti (who are forest dwellers) (MFA gallery label). 

Mwaash aMbooy

The Mboom mask is said to be the oldest mask with the Mwaash aMbooy mask shortly following.  The Mwaash aMbooy is made of wood, elephant hide, and raffia cloth; this mask represents the King.  Masks were first thought to have been worn in the time of Queen Labaam whose name and ideas suggested carving during her reign.  Following traditions allows the masks to be found in the Age of Chiefs; a ncok song is known that speaks of a bwoom mask during this age.  The song also mentioned how the masks needed decorations added so this was the time where cowries and beads were added to the surfaces of these masks (Vasina , 216).

Mask Designs

The surfaces of the masks are decorated with geometric designs made with different colors, patterns, and textures.  Most commonly fur, animal hide, metal, and feathers were used as the base material before being covered with beads and other decorative elements.  There are many types of masks that are commonly worn in the Kuba culture; in the capital of Nsheng, masks cannot be worn without the permission of the King.  Three important masquerades in Nsheng include mwashamboy, bwoom, and ngady a mwash.  During the mwashamboy, the actor wears a mask made of leopard skin with wooden eyes, nose, ears, and mouth attached.  Shells and cowries are added for detail along with an animal hair beard; a large headdress is also included to signify the one worn by the king and give more importance to the mask and its wearer.  Everyone refers to this “as the king’s mask” even though he never wears it, only a man of his choice is allowed to wear it.  Because there are not any eye holes in this mask, the dance is very slow and well choreographed (Cole , 389).

Bwoom Mask

Ngesh is represented by the oldest known mask, the bwoom mask.  The style is like that of the middle Kasai and it could be much older than those created during the Age of Chiefs (Vasina , 216).  This mask is a carved wooded helmet that is given a very wide forehead and sunken cheeks that are annunciated by patterns or hatching and beads.  Copper covers the mouth of the mask which is then outlined with red and white beads; the beads used are imported and the cowries are also bought from other tribes.  Black beads are used to separate the forehead into different sectors and multicolored beads are used to bring attention to other aspects of the face such as the nose and chin.  The person wearing the mask looks out through the nostril holes because there are not any eye holes present; the mask is supposed to give the feeling of being blind.  This mask represents the brother of Woot but tends to stand for the commoners in society as well as the lower ranked members of the court (Cole , 390).  Some masks similar to the bwoom mask include the buffalo mask, ram mask, and initiation masks such as nnup, kalyengl, ishyeen imaulul, and ngady mwaash ambooy (Vasina , 216).

Ngady a Mwash Mask

A ngady a mwash mask is much more intricate with many different colored beads, fabric pieces, shells, and surface patterns.  This mask is given eye holes so the wearer is able to see what is going on while they perform before the Kuba tribal community.  In this example, beads descend from the nose and pass all the way down over the mouth.  The triangles represent domesticity and the different shades of barkcloth to remind people of their ancestors.  Lines passing across the cheeks of ngady a mwash, Woot’s sister and wife, represent tears of suffering and mourning.  The fact the mask represents a woman can be determined when watching the graceful choreographed movements of the man representing Woot’s sister and wife (Cole , 391).


The most common uses of masks include initiation ceremonies and funerals.  Initiation ceremonies usually entail the circumcision of boys and their acceptance into manhood; both female and male figures are represented by masks in the ceremony even though only men perform (Cole , 391).  The Nyeeng mask, a type of helmet mask, is associated with the boys’ initiation and is worn by Shyaam during these ceremonies (Vasina , 216).  Funerary masks are not only used for title holders in society, but for non recognized members of society as well (Cole , 391).  Regional differences can be spotted in the bwoom masks from the eastern and central tribes.  During the 18th century, most were carved out of a very light wood; the trunk of the tree was used because it was over one meter in diameter so it was the perfect size for a mask (Vasina , 216).