A Lega facemask

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Category: SKU: DSC01011


A Lega facemask, mouth and eyes pierced through; natural brownish, light wood cocered with remnants of kaolin.

500 – 600,- Euro

Height: 29 cm
360 g

Lega “masks” fall into the category of Bwami initiation objects. The Lega further divide them into five types according to material, size, and form: lukwakongo, kayam-ba, idimu, muminia, and lukungu (Biebuyck 1973,164). They serve as an important mark of rank, identifying the owners as members of specific Bwami levels (Biebuyck 1986,125-26).

Contrary to the Lega mask categories based on form and material, most Western definitions of masks are based on
function. “Mask” describes an object that covers the face and transforms the wearer. Using this definition, the Lega have very few, if any, true masks. Most of what we know as Lega “masks” are sculptures of a human face that are rarely worn over the face and never for purposes of true transformation (Biebuyck 1993,190).

Like many initiation objects, the Lega mask can be assigned different uses and meanings depending on the context of the performance (Biebuyck 1954,113). In Bwami ceremonies, masks are attached to different parts of the body, piled in stacks, hung on fences, displayed, dragged on the ground, and occasionally worn on the forehead with the beard draping over the face of the wearer (figs. 9.1-9.5; Biebuyck 1973,167-68; 1994, 42). The small wooden lukwakongo masks, for example, are rarely worn on the face. Instead Bwami members attach them to their arms, the sides of their heads, or their foreheads; they hang them on fences, as noted above; or they hold them in their hands. To facilitate presenting the handheld masks, artists carve handles on their backs (figs. 9.6-9.12).

The sculpture, or “mask,” manipulated by a senior Bwami member can assume the roles of many different characters
during performances. The Bwami member can be compared to a puppeteer and the mask to a puppet. Characterization occurs around the mask, but the puppeteer is not transformed. For lack of a better term, however, I will continue the established tradition and use “mask” to refer to these masklike sculptures.

Interestingly, Lega masks differ from Western definitions as well as from masks used in many other African masquerade traditions in that while women do not own them, both men and women handle and present them in very similar performances. Biebuyck gives several descriptions of women using different masks, including idimu and lukwakongo (1986,133,145,149,175). He stresses that the only mask a woman uses is the one belonging to her high-ranking husband
(Biebuyck 1994, 50). One account describes women with masks over their faces:

The masks appeared about five o’clock the next morning. A row of kalonda women emerged from behind the houses. Each woman, cloaked in white bark cloth (hung over the head like a hood but leaving the face visible), wore a small mask affixed to her cap high against the forehead, the beard falling to the lower part of the face. Moving silently and slowly, in bent or crouched position, the women reached the dance ground and sat down on stools in a line, facing a feather rope tied between two poles. Only the most senior initiated wife of each yananio present wore her husband’s mask. The women were alternately identified as the Big-Ones-Who-Are-In-(the village called) Harmony, Big-Ones-Who-Are-Nice, and Big-Ones-Who-Are-Well-Prepared (for the ceremonies). They are also referred to as the “row of Nyakamuno,” which in this context meant women called together for serious business. [Biebuyck 1986,133]

Even though the women wear the masks with a costume and the beard draped over their faces, no transformation occurs, and they act out characters as women and men regularly do in Bwami performances.

A concept that unites many of these masklike sculptures is the portrayal and importance of ancestors. The names of several of the mask forms refer to death: “lukungu, skull; lukwakongo, death gathers in; idimu, ancestor” (Biebuyck 1954,113). Masks are among the initiation objects displayed on the grave before being passed to new owners. When the
next member of the owner’s lineage reaches the appropriate level, he is given the mask (Biebuyck 1953C, 1078-79; 1986,131; 1954,111-13; 1973. 211-13). Thus Bwami members pass masks down through many generations, and the history of each piece is carefully remembered. With objects that specifically represent Kindi, such as the ivory lukungu
mask, the genealogy is especially strong. The proverb “On ivory, mushrooms do not grow” compares ivory to a man’s skeleton, suggesting the former’s ability to serve as a permanent, durable memory of previous owners (Biebuyck 1973,174). The reference to the mask as a skull, the association of ivory with human remains, and the connection of the mask and the grave all stress continuity. These masks connect the past and the present, creating an un-broken chain of
ancestors (Biebuyck 1973, 104-5; 1976,339).
Source: Art of the Lega

Additional information

Weight 0.360 kg