Signs and Symbols

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

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Kuba peoples


Cloth, shells, beads, fiber

H. 45.1 cm (17 ¾”)

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.372

The masked theater of Kuba boys' initiation pits moshambwooy, as the first king, against bwoom, “the commoner.” Both the strengths and foibles of the king are demonstrated in a dramatization of Kuba ambivalence to royal authority. Moshambwooy masks are characterized by long projections from the top of the head that represent elephant trunks: the king is as mammothly magnificent and his responsibilities as ponderous. The rest of the mask and costume are covered with potent symbols of Kuba culture. Cowry shells began to be imported into the central African interior centuries ago, coming all the way from the Maldive Islands off the coast of India. Through the early 1900s, they served as tokens of value in local and long-distance trade, and on this mask they refer to economic affiliation and power. The mask's beading is accomplished in patterns that resonate throughout Kuba material culture, tying together diverse objects and cultural contexts (see Binkley and Darish 2009).

Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, dance of royal mask. Photo by Angelo Turconi.