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Helmet Mask (mukenga)

Unidentified Kuba artist
20th century
Cloth, wood, cowrie shells, glass beads, iron, feathers, palm fiber, cane
Associated with
Kasaï province, Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa
Costume & clothing
Current Location
On View, Gallery 117
19 11/16 x 11 13/16 in. (50 x 30 cm)
Credit Line
Gift of Morton D. May
Public Domain
Object Number
With its abundant cowrie shells and symbolic elephant’s trunk, this mask is the most important of the Kuba royal masks and emphasizes the wealth and power of the "nyeem" (king). Cowrie shells, imported via the Indian Ocean to the Kasai River region of central Africa, were used as a currency often in exchange for ivory. As a principal commodity of the transatlantic trade, ivory was strictly controlled by the "nyeem." Additionally, the strength and majesty of an elephant represent ideal characteristics for a king to embody. This type of mask was often performed with two other royal masks representing the Kuba Kingdom’s mythological founding ancestors and the fundamental roles of the "nyeem," women, and commoners in society.
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