Mwaash aMbooy Mask

Although art has historically glorified the powerful, it can also be a means of communication and expression for those without power. These Congolese works represent opposite ends of the social spectrum.

The mwaash aMbooy mask is emblematic of royal power and prestige for the Kuba kingdom of the central Congo. It represents Woot, the founding hero from whom the Kuba trace their descent, and is worn only by the king (nyim) or by local chiefs. In both its dance and as a sculpture, it is a vision of gravity and composure.

The contemporary portraits by Aimé Mpane, in turn, depict the struggles of those without access to power. They show ordinary citizens of Kinshasa, along with representations of their fears and desires. The artist carves these images from plywood, turning two-dimensional surfaces into works filled with light and shadow (suggesting both presence and absence) that animate the stories of the dispossessed.


Mask of thin parchment, painted. Elaborately trimmed with shell and hair decoration. Shell eyes. The surface is highly decorative, composed of intricately painted geometric designs and geometrically arranged cowrie shells and beads. One feature, a long strip of beaded decoration extending from the bridge of the nose to the chin is present. Emphasis placed on 2 dimensional surface quality and elaborate polychromy. Condition: Headdress worn and torn.


Kuba titleholders at the royal court, Mushenge, Congo, 1971 by
Eliot Elisofon

The photograph depicts high-ranking Kuba notable ‘Tshik'l’ wearing traditional costume, symbolic adornements as well as the headdress ‘Lapuum’, at the court of Nyim Kot a-Mbweeky III. [Cornet J., 1982: Art Royal Kuba, Edizioni Sipiel Milano]. “The most visible insignia of titleholding associated with hats and headdresses is the specific bird feather (lashal) worn by each titleholder. Each title is associated with a particular bird whose characteristics the titleholder is thought to share. It is the accumulative nature of Kuba costuming, encompassing not only feathers but beads, shell, brass, and copper which is characteristic of Kuba royal display at the highest level.” [Darish P., Binkley D., 1995: Headdresses and Titleholding Among the Kuba, Crowning Achievements, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History].

Kuba Nyim (kinga) Kot a-Mbweeky III, Congo by Eliot Elisofon

Nyim Kot a-Mbweeky III wearing royal dress ‘Bwaantshy’; royal headdress known as 'Ntshuum Aniym’; necklace 'Lashyaash’ made of leopard teeth; sword 'Mbombaam’; lance 'Mbwoom Ambady

The full name of the Kuba Nyim depicted on the photograph is Kwεt áMbwε'ky René (III): aka Køt áMbwε'ky. Most full names consist of three successive personal names: the king’s own name, the name of his mother and the name of his mother’s mother connected by particles meaning “of.” Only this ruler has a Christian name. The aka names are often used source