Signs and Symbols

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

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Kuba artist


Wood, copper, cloth, leather, shells, beads

H. 27.3 cm (10 3/4")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.195

Of the arcane knowledge or “gnosis” learned during the liminal period of boys' initiation, cosmology is often so important that it is acted out through masked dramas and exhibitions of sacred materials referring to the origins of cultural institutions. Boys see and eventually participate in theatrical productions explaining how the world has come to be the way it is. Axiomatic values are often personified, and plots for these plays often pit cultural heroes against forces of evil or chaos. Among Kuba peoples, performances are staged for three major masks called moshambwooy, the first king; ngady a mwash, his queen; and bwoom, a commoner. The iconography of bwoom masks like this one refers to nature spirits and hunter-gatherers who so intimately know the rain forest. In initiation dramas, bwoom competes for the throne of moshambwooy and the sexual favors of ngadya mwash, much to the king’s displeasure. The same masker polices the initiation camp (see Binkley and Darish 2009).

Kuba artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, dance of bwoom mask. Photo by Angelo Turconi.