By Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Northern Suku mahamba masks, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1976. Photo by Arthur Bourgeois.

Here Suku initiation masks perform in pairs with an attendant and to the accompaniment of musicians singing songs of mourning as they play drums, lamellophones, and rattles.  The masks are worn by elders in netted shirt with sleeves, a fiber skirt at the waist with dried monkey skins attached.  Two or more rows of seed-pod balls worn on the lower legs serve as percussion instruments.  In the dancer's hands are held misesa (dance wands).  Made from a cylindrical section of wood carved into a helmet or bell-shape, the exterior is worked into the image of a human face and coiffure, often surmounted by a personage or with an animal.  Such masks are said to serve as a collective image of elders who have departed, particularly past matrilineage headmen.  Yet at the same time, they remain a powerful charm that can effect success in hunting, cure certain disorders, and harm anyone concealing malevolent intent or showing disrespect.