<< Search Results
Bookmark and Share


Core Record

Title elephant ivory mask
Collection Artworld: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Date 1900-1999 CE
Description This shallow, convex ivory mask displays protruding oval eyes and a small open oval mouth, with a long and slender nose. There are six holes round the base of the mask, possibly for a bear-like attachment. There is significant cracking and erosion on the upper right of the mask, which is yellowy-white in colour.
Description Source Helen Coleman
Cultural Context Lega
Id Number Current Accession 269
Location Creation Site Congo
Location Current Repository Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Subject accessory (including regalia), mask
Measurements 130 x 172 x 40 mm
Credit Line Mask. Central and East Africa, Zaire: Lega. Early 20th century (;). Elephant ivory. h. 17.1 cm. Acquired 1953. UEA 269
Context The Lega (also known as the Warega or Rega, the less correct Swahili from of the tribal name) live in eastern Zaire. The carve miniature masks and figures in ivory, bone and wood for use in the rites of the Bwami secret society to which nearly all adult Lega belong: Bwami is Lega society. The hierarchy, structure and rules that govern Bwami and define each of its members also govern Lega society. Bwami and Lega are indivisible. Women as well as men may be initiates, like the normal secret society which is restricted to men. Bwami was proscribed by the Government in 1948, but allowed to resume after the country gained independence.
Different masks, figures, carvings and other objects, singly or in combination, are appropriate to various grades within Bwami. They may be insignia, and may also embody some principle of good conduct within the group. Ivory masks, called lukungu (skull), represent 'the skull of my father' and symbolise the continuity linking the son with his father or other ancestors and kinsmen through Bwami. Such masks are used in the initiation of the highest grade, kindi. They may be handed down within a lineage over four or more generations. As part of the final stage of initiation (lutumbo lwa kindi) ivory masks are displayed on a small fence: proverbs embodying obligations and rules of conduct binding upon the initiates are associated with the display and its accompanying rites (Biebuyck, 1973: pls. 38-9).
Ivory and elephant bone are usual materials for lukungu masks (ibid: pls. 56-8). This mask is rather larger than the average for such masks and would have come from a tusk at least 7 inches in diameter. The curves of the mask at the top left of the brow and on the chin show some irregularity which may be due to a flaw in the tusk, lack of skill in the carver, or damage in later handling. Most masks have no fibre beard such as this one seems to have had.
The colour is exceptionally pale: lukungu masks that have had tribal use acquire a distinctive warm orange-brown patina from ibonga (ceremonial oiling) in the rites consecrating them. Traces of patination are visible on both sides of the masks, which seems to have been 'cleaned up' by non-Lega: there are also signs of some polishing compound in the cracks.
While unauthentic Lega masks of this type undoubtedly exist, the signs of patina removal suggest that this mask is not among their number.
Context Source Margret Carey. In: Steven Hooper (ed.), 1997, Catalogue to the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. University of East Anglia.
Context Title Published Catalogue
Relation Referenced By Margret Carey
Relation References Biebuyck, D. 1953. Signification d’une Statuette Lega. La Revue Coloniale Belge, Belgium.
Rights Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UEA, Norwich, 2002. All Rights reserved
Work Type mask



about        contact        terms of use        image credits        © 2019