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Face mask
Date: Early to mid-20th century
Medium: Wood, wood pegs, copper, iron, pigment, plant fiber, cotton, wool, cowrie shells, glass beads
Dimensions: H x W x D: 29.5 x 24.8 x 24.6 cm (11 5/8 x 9 3/4 x 9 11/16 in.)
Credit Line: Museum purchase
Geography: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Object Number: 94-14-1
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Object is not currently on exhibit

Lele visual arts are rich in utilitarian objects such as boxes, pipes and cups. Ritual masks, however, are rare, and their functions are little known. This mask is one of the few that exists outside Africa. Lele stylistic traits exhibited by the mask include a broad, flat face; wide forehead; round narrowing chin; arched eyebrows; narrow slit eyes; long, narrow triangular-shaped nose and a small mouth. Its headdress is elaborately decorated with cowrie shells and blue and yellow glass beads. Until the early decades of this century, in much of sub-Saharan Africa beads and cowrie shells were valuable trade items extensively used as currency and to decorate regalia and ritual objects. Particular elements of the masks of the neighboring Kuba/Bushoong and Pende have been appropriated by the Lele. The headdress on this mask, for example, evokes the Bushoong hairline and the practice of covering areas of the face with metal. The flat wood face and headdress are also similar to face masks found among the Akwa Pinda, a Pende group living in the Kasai region. Lele masks are thought to have appeared in dances accompanying the burial rites of chiefs and in annual foundation/creation ceremonies. Masks have a similar use among the Kuba, who share a creation myth with the Lele.

Wood face mask with a wide forehead, narrow slit eyes accentuated with a series of arched striations incised above as eyebrows and replicated in metal below the eyes, a long and narrow nose, a small projecting mouth and a round narrowing chin. The bottom end of the framework carries a series of linear holes for costume attachements. The headdress is an elaborate composition predominately of red cloth supported by an internal wicker and woven raffia framework. The upper part is embellished with strands of cowrie shells that frame the forehead and radiate out along the top and sides; a string of dark blue and yellow beads runs directly below the first line of cowrie. The back of the headdress is adorned with a glass beads composition, arranged in zigzag patterns and largely composed of small, white and light blue beads.

Christian Van Lierde, Brussels, collected in Ilebo area, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1974 to 1994

African Mosaic: Selections from the Permanent Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 19, 2013–August 12, 2019 (installed July 16, 2014-March 30, 2016)

Treasures, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 17, 2004-August 15, 2005

Celebrating our New Collection Catalogue Handbook, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., February 2-June 5, 2000

Felix, Marc Leo. 1987. 100 Peoples of Zaire and their Sculpture: The Handbook. Brussels: Tribal Arts Press, p. 75, no. 11.

Lehuard, Raoul. 1993. "La Face des Esprits." Arts d'Afrique Noire, Autumn, p. 18.

Herreman, Frank and Constantijn Petridis, eds. 1993. Face of the Spirits: Masks form the Zaire Basin. Gent: Snoeck-Ducaju, p. 125, no. 57.

National Museum of African Art. 1999. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 131.

Neyt, Francois. 1981. Traditional Arts and History of Zaire. Louvain-la-Neuve: Societe d'Arts primitifs, Institut superieur d'Archeologie et d'Histoire de l'Art, p. 181, no. VIII.24.

Patton, Sharon F. 2004. Treasures: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. Folio.

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