Childhood

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

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Lula peoples

Mask

Wood, fiber, blue and white pigment

H. 43 cm (17")

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.499

A boy's initiation frequently begins with rude separation from his mother’s hearth. Such symbolic death is sometimes portrayed as being devoured by a beast or by death itself. Serer men of Senegal run through the village seizing boys to be initiated; when they shout “The beast has swallowed them!,” the mothers sing “Spare them!” in a fearful chorus (see Faye 1983). The mothers' lament reflects the sadness American parents feel as their children first go off to school: the bliss of childhood is ended. But there are other reasons for fear: circumcision is often a feature of boys' initiation, and occasional complications can sometimes sicken or even kill an initiand; boys of frail constitution may not easily endure the rigors of the camp; and away from those who love them most, boys are vulnerable to anyone with evil intentions. This Lula mask embodying a strong spiritual presence served as a warning to sorcerers that any attack on initiands in its protection would be punished.