Childhood

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Mbole peoples

Mask

Wood

H. 48.6 cm (19")

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.567

Other childhood moments may be marked by ritual as first teeth emerge or a toddler begins to walk, but the next major rite of passage occurs at or soon after puberty. Indeed, Africanist scholars often use the term “initiation” to refer to rituals transforming boys and girls from dependents to active participants in adult life. But not all African groups possess such rituals, and boys' initiation is more common than girls'. Some scholars suggest that such dramas are produced because the onset of male puberty cannot be documented as precisely as menstruation. Instead, boys' initiation punctuates physical development by presenting the “invisible realities” of cosmology and social order that should guide initiands throughout life. The color symbolism of this Mbole initiation mask probably taught boys about sublime divinity, for the red “violence” of its forehead is held in balance by the “enlightened” whiteness of its eyes and the secret and silent knowledge implied by the black “underworld” of mouth and chin.