Art and Initiation Among the Yaka and Suku

by Arthur Bourgeois
Professor Emeritus, Governors State University

The newly circumcised remain naked in the open, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1976. Photo by Arthur Bourgeois.

The symbolism involved in most mask elements make reference to opposing classes that are mediated through ritual intervention, namely oppositions of village and bush, humankind and the supernatural, male and female, initiated and uninitiated, life and death.  Ritual display of the colors white, red and black on masks relate to analogous use of kaolin, khula (red pigment), and charcoal in other rituals where transitions in life processes are both dramatized and protected.  Raffia and palm frond fringes that edge masks are equally used to curtain ritual enclosures and mediate protection against disruptive agents and, in addition, retain symbolic association with palm tree fertility and the life-bearing journey of the sun.