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HOME : African & Tribal Art : African Collection/ HK : Pende Mbangu Mask with Textile Hood
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Pende Mbangu Mask with Textile Hood - PF.3892 (LSO)
Origin: Southwestern Congo
Circa: 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 8.5" (21.6cm) high x 6.5" (16.5cm) wide
Catalogue: V19
Collection: African
Medium: Wood and Textile

Additional Information: Dimensions Do Not Include the Textile Hood. /korea
Location: Great Britain
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This peculiar mask is an exceptional piece, made by the Pende of Gabon and Zaire. It is very unusual among African masks in general by being asymmetrical, seemingly depicting a facially deformed individual. It has a high, protuberant forehead, with separate high-relief brows, a very long nose and half-open coffee bean eyes. The mouth – and thus the tip of the nose – is twisted strongly over to the mask’s left side; the mouth is so distorted that it has become assumed the shape of an equilateral triangle with the apex towards the chin, and is open to reveal jagged triangular teeth. The mask is surrounded by an adorned hood of raffia and plain textile, to cover the head of the wearer. Unusually, the wood is almost unpigmented, with remnants of white paint on the mask’s right side. These pieces are usually monochrome black and white, although the patination here implies a long usage that may have removed any such detail.

The Pende live in the Loango and Kasai River area in what was once Zaire. They have a complex history of interaction with the Lunda Empire and the Tchokwe, and are affiliated with the Yaka and Suku, with which they share a common origin (Angola). They are governed by a loose network of localised chiefs (Djigo) and what essentially amounts to a landed aristocracy. Social structures – and thus most of their artworks – are centred on age groups which are circumcised and enter adulthood together, with what essentially amounts to a gerontocracy through the society. The spiritual welfare of Pende communities is controlled by family heads (usually the eldest maternal uncle of a family – the society is matrilineal) and village diviners. Ancestor spirits (mvumbi) are either good or bad, determined by the manner in which the ancestor died, and can harm the family unless appeased and cared for. Spirits may demand that the holy man make a sculpture, to which offerings are made.

So far as artistic production is concerned, the Pende are divided into Eastern and Western groups, although these divisions are socially artificial and the Pende consider themselves to be a single people. A great deal of Pende art is basically regalia, including ivory mask pendants (Ikhoko), staffs, adzes, cups whistles and much else. Pende figures are rare, and represent ancestors; some female sculptures have also been recovered, and are believed to be maternity figures. There are fifteen mask forms in the Western group, all of which are somewhat similar in possessing downcast eyes, protruding teeth and a triangular nose. The Eastern group possess only about four variants. The current piece is an Mbangu mask, made by the Western Pende.

Interpretation of these masks has been informed by history and imagination. The most accepted form is that it represents a victim of an epileptic seizure, who were believed to be possessed by spirits and thus to be in some way holy. The other main story attributes significance to the colours (white as the – perhaps curative – colour of the spirits, and black for sickness), and there has been much psychoanalysis of the significance thereof (i.e. offending the spirits etc). Historical accounts claim that these represent upstanding hunters who have been struck by struck by illness, itself caused by sorcery from a jealous rival. They are danced for young audiences, to teach them the value of moral integrity.

This is one of the very few portrayals of illness to be portrayed in African art, and it is thus an important piece as well as being an attractive piece of art in its own right.

- (PF.3892 (LSO))


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