An expressive Mbangu Mask, Central Pende


Translated from the German Original (Link)

 26cm high (visible 23) , 17.5 cm wide, 460g

26cm high (visible 23) , 17.5 cm wide, 460g – Click to enlarge the icons



The mask is sweepingly generalized, inside coarse, but functional, e.g. with its wide channel between the eye openings. My face fits in perfectly, the view slightly downward is good. The edges are slightly rounded and show some shine. Willy knows the wood from Pende masks,

The front of the mask shows no superfluous cut or smoothing. So the the area covered by the cap was treated only with the chisel. On the black right side, slight blade marks give additional dynamics to the surfaces.

From the beginning I associate the performance of an excited dancer who is set to play the role of the cursed but militant man.

Some Words about Role and Performance of the Mask

Frank Herreman shows three Mbangu in his small but rich exhibition catalog “To Cure and Protect” (Museum for African Art, N.Y. 1999 no.9-11).  His comment of course leaves some questions unanswered: “They are variations on the  representation of a highly regarded hunter who has been stricken with facial paralysis. This mask demonstrates how even the most esteemed and upright member of the community can unexpectedly be afflicted with sickness. In this case the Pende believe that the individual is a victim of sorcery, bewitched by a rival (…)  In performance, the Mbangu mask is danced  with a whole cast of character types, from clown to sorcerer and prostitute. These masks teach Pende audiences about the rewards of good behavior and of the pitfalls of those who are morally flawd. The black and white painting refers to the scars of someone who fellinto fire due to to epilepsy or some other medical condition.

Herremans refers to Strother’s contribution in “Masterpieces from Central Africa”, 1996, no. 46. Here she outlines also the performance: This Mbangu mask represents the bewitched. It dances to the song “We look on (unable to help), the sorcerers have bewitched him”. The masker wears a humpback from which an arrow extends. The arrow refers to the popular image of sorcerers of the invisible bullets of the sorcerers ‘shooting’ their prey with invisible arrows when they cast their spell. (…) The dancer imitates evasive and defensive movements. Sometimes he performs with a bow and arrow himself, aiming at random, thereby conveying his wish to strike back at the source of his misfortune and frustration (…) (p.159)

 In “Inventing Masks – Agency and History in the Art of the Central Pende” (1998), Zoé S.Strother gives another explanation which makes the grotesque face and its reception with mockery more plausible:
Mbangu mocked the dangerous consequences of failure to control power to discourage the pursuit of antisocial sorcery” (297)

But such a grim theme conflicted with the trend toward  a masquerade tradition of stressing communality and joy (297). An ambiguous figure, then. And sometimes laughing stuck in the throat.

With increasing social tensions criminal sorcery increased. The capitalist economy since colonial times disturbed the traditional rules of give and take between relatives. Consequently elders extorted money and labor from younger family members with the help of sorcery. Young people developed a strong feeling of being exploited by them. Even in Kinshasa they were not safe from the demands of their ‘uncle’. For criticism new songs and masks were invented (“the sorcerer”) whose popularity varied from 1953 to the eighties (297-298). In the end, as Strother writes elsewhere: Mbangu has been a pretty rare mask since I was there. There’s been so much malnutrition in the Bandundu that people haven’t been dancing masks much since 1990. “ (eMail)

The local (and international) audience naturally expects a disfigured ugly face. This fact could invite the woodcarver to carry too far the caricature or simply to quote the notorious characteristics of facial paralysis (palsy) heavily affecting eyelids, mouth and symmetry, not to forget smallpox and protuding front, and this in a more or less stylish way. Some of these masks have become famous in the whole art-world. Often you see on Mbangu faces crookedly inserted mouths simply function as an abstract significative of that type of mask.

But as far as I know, no limits are imposed to the choice of clinical form of disfigurement.

Questions and Ideas

No doubt, here we we have a very individualized face. For example: no standard nose, but a broad nose as if broken by a heavy blow.

IMG_8572 Mbangu schrägAnd the pulled down nose tip? The mouth reminds me of an operative closure of the cleft palate. The lips are carved extremely broad and protruding, but in harmony with the typically dramatic ‚Pende’ eyebrows and the equally thick border of the heavy eye-lids.

The mouth becomes a funnel, literally screaming, attracting our attention as much as the expressive eyes do. The face embodies already the narrative of the dance: injury and fight.

Even the conspicuously small auricles make sense in the composition: we see the face as it would appear in a distorting mirror or through a wide-angle lens or a magnyfying glass.


I return to the rudeness of the technical design. From Zoé S. Strother, I’ve learned that the dancer as customer has to arrange with the craftsman, and that prominent carvers demand prices that exceed the possibilities of not yet arrived dancers.

Who has teamed up in this case? Did a friend help out who acquired the craft solely by kibitzing? Or did the young dancer carve himself? Or was the carver in a hurry? Zoé tells the story of a gifted newcomer who made a song out of his frustration, performed it secretly to his friends and developed a new dance with their assistance. Finally he improvised his face mask with the simplest means for his first appearance by lack of time and money.

And then I look again at the mask lying on the floor:  No, that is not the work of a beginner!  And as the repeatedly overpainted kaolin layers show, the mask could have been successful over years. The raffia is worn out, the smell is almost gone but the wood is intact.


Z.S.Strother was so kind to tell me her opinion based on the two photos

The carver is having fun. That isn’t to say that people wouldn’t laugh to see it and enjoy a mocking performance of Mbangu. However, the market is flooded with Mbangu types because we foreigners like it so much. Mbangu has been a pretty rare mask since I was there. There’s been so much malnutrition in the Bandundu that people haven’t been dancing masks much since 1990.

(eMail 29. Mai 2018)


Let’s catch a glimpse of the glorious times of ‘authentic’ provenance:

Strother stresses “the fact that the twentieth-century Pende sculptor has always been fully integrated into the world market. His production has always belonged to a mixed  economy, with works destined both for Pende connoisseurs and for anonymous foreign dealers.

Gabama a Gingungu and the Secret History of Twentieth Century Art“, African Arts. Spring 1999, pp.19-31.: p.29)

It is striking that the legendary ethnographers Leo Frobenius  (1904) and Emil Torday (1909) both acquired Pende objects before they entered Pende territory, Torday at the headquarters of the Compagnie du Kasai in Dima, at least 575 kilometers downstream on the banks of the Kasai river. “Pende masks were circulating as trade goods with standardized prices.” (30)

Europeans’ commissions for masks allowed sculptors with reputation to professionalize, to make a modest living from sculpting all day. As is generally known, the Belgians had introduced a money economy and exacted what they called ‘taxes’, what the Pende called ‘tribute’. (28) 

For more details see the essay by Zoé Strother.

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