Precolonial Lega society was governed by Bwami, a graded association open to all men and women in a given village. Bwami was also an educational system through which esteemed Lega values were taught. Above all, Bwami conveyed prestige, and its activities were the sole impetus for the visual arts.
The highest grades in Bwami were yananio and kindi, ranks comprising the intellectual, moral and political elite of the society, who were privileged to own or have access to the most prestigious art forms. Among these were carved wood and ivory or bone masks of various sizes. In addition to serving as insignia of a member's rank within Bwami, masks were also symbols of the link between the living and their deceased paternal relatives. They were also used to teach Bwami initiates moral precepts.
Idumu masks celebrate the perpetuity of the entire kinship unit and were collectively owned by the lineage. They were handed down from generation to generation and carefully preserved; new masks were rarely carved. This one was originally entirely whitened and probably had a fiber beard attached to it.
Like all Lega masks, the idumu was worn not only on the face to conceal the wearer's identity but also at the back of the head; it could also be displayed on a fence or the symbolic grave of a Bwami member. As teaching aids, idumu masks illustrated proverbs about correct behavior.
While Bwami was essential to Lega life, the Belgian colonial government as well as Christian missionaries saw it as immoral and subversive. Consequently, the Belgian government outlawed Bwami in 1948.
Wood face mask with a heart-shaped whitened facial plane, pierced elliptical eyes and mouth, a sharply defined nose and arching brows. Registers of small holes span the area of the brows. Larger holes rim the lower edge of the mask. A fiber cord is inserted through the holes at the temples.
Fernand Deville, Brussels, collected in Belgian Congo, 1920-1939 to 1955
Private collection, Belgium, 1955 to 1993
Entwistle, London, 1993
Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renee Stout, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., April 28, 1993-January 15, 1994
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. 142.