This Face Mask was made by an unidentified Bembe artist, associated with the region that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Measuring 14 inches high, the carved mask depicts a face with exaggerated, owl-like features and crescent-shaped eyes surrounded by white pigment. The eyes, as the dominant feature, may represent a window into the spiritual world. Pierced holes surround the face, giving a clue to the mask’s intended use. Thought to be an emangungu mask, this object was used in circumcision rites—or butende bwa ‘eluba—performed by a sub-group of the Bembe. After the ceremony, the young men spent time in seclusion, using these masks as disguises when they visited villages in search of food. The holes around the edges would have connected the mask to a dried banana leaf and banana tree bark costume that covered the body of the wearer.
While the Bembe are generally located in the area known as the DRC, the tribe consists of people from a range of affiliations. Starting in the 19th century, they were among the countless groups impacted by the devastating presence of European invaders and slave traders. This movement of tribes led to the Bembe absorbing other cultural influences and traditions, as seen in their ceremonial objects.