Constantine Petridis Curator of African Art
Female Face Mask, Gambanda early 1900s. Pende people, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood, raffia; h. 25 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 2008.150. Photo by Franko Khoury, courtesy of Z. S. Strother
This mask in the Central Pende style, one of three major stylistic categories identified in the arts of the Pende people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is arguably one of the most exquisite examples of a female Pende mask known. It is one of about 85 works highlighted in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s new gallery devoted to the arts of Africa south of the Sahara in the lower level of the refurbished 1916 building.
Field-collected in 1934 by the Belgian colonial administrator Maurice Matton, the mask was acquired by the museum in late 2008 at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris. Often published and exhibited in Europe and the United States, this is undoubtedly the work of an accomplished master carver who, though anonymous today, must have enjoyed some fame at the time of the mask’s creation. According to the leading Pende art expert Zoë S. Strother, a professor of art history at Columbia University, this particular sculpture represents the “epitome of feminine physiognomy.” Describing the mask’s “smooth forehead, softly modeled cheekbones,” and “oval silhouette” in her latest book, Pende: The Experience of Art (Milan: 5 Continents, 2008), Strother points out that its artist has been especially successful in capturing what the Pende call zanze, which Strother translates as “bedroom eyes.” The rendering of this seductive gaze is considered to be a Pende sculptor’s greatest challenge. The mask is also remarkable for its well-preserved, intricately made wig of hundreds of diminutive braids, which imitates a once fashionable hairdo known as guhota sanga. It was highly regarded by the Pende “because it quivers with the lightest motion and enhances the movements of the head” (Strother, Pende, page 39).
Guhota Sanga Hairstyle A Pende woman sporting the beloved guhota sanga hairstyle, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1925–38. Photo by Dr. Émile Muller, courtesy of Pierre Loos
As Strother’s extensive research has revealed (she conducted 32 months of fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1987 to 1989), different genres within the Central Pende style express complex theories about physiognomy and gender. Believing that gender reflects inner character, the Pende draw a contrast between the gentle, self-controlled, socially responsible female and the hot, energetic, creative male. According to Strother (Pende, page 26), “More generally the facial plane is much shallower in the feminine representation, the features less assertive. The face is oval and softly modulated.” The curving bands of cicatrices enhance the plumpness of the cheeks. The female mouth is more horizontal than the male and the flatter upper lip reflects the belief that women’s emotions are peaceful. Collectively known as mbuya jia mukhetu (sing. mbuya ya mukhetu), certain female masks execute specific professions or occupations, including the Prostitute (Ngobo or Tambi) and a coquettish woman who is recognized as the Beauty of the Village (Gabuku). The museum’s mask represents Gambanda, the Wife of the Chief—known as Kambanda among the Eastern Pende. Also more broadly defined as “the contemporary fashionable woman,” this name is sometimes used to refer to the category of female masks as a whole.
As in many other African languages, the generic Pende term for mask, mbuya, has a much broader meaning than its English translation. It refers to the headdress as well as to the persona created through the combination of headdress, costume, and performance (including music, song, and dance). In Pende language a mask is always “danced,” never just worn. However, while male masks “usually keep moving and periodically burst forth in displays of propulsive energy,” female characters perform on one spot and with relatively contained gestures (Strother, Pende, page 24). Interestingly, according to Strother’s research, the invention of a new headpiece always starts with the conception of a new dance and entails a close collaboration among sculptors, dancers, and drummers. In its original context, this female mask, like any other Pende mask, would have performed in a masquerade, a collective multi-media event in which audience participation determines success.
Mask in Action One of the wives of Chief Kombo-Kiboto dances with the female mask Kambanda (the Eastern Pende equivalent of), village of Ndjindji, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1987. Photo by Z. S. Strother
While among the Central Pende such masquerades have become largely secular events, they still contribute to group solidarity. In former times, throughout Pende country masquerades constituted a place of communion between the living and the dead. Masks did not really incarnate or personify the dead (vumbi; sing. nvumbi), but commemorated deceased family members who were said to return to the village to dance among their living descendants. Although in contemporary Central Pende society masquerades mainly serve to entertain, it seems that they were originally organized after the ritual renewal of the village to thank the ancestors for past assistance and to request their continued benevolence. They would occur when the millet was sowed or harvested, when the chief fell ill, or when epidemics threatened the well-being of the community.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2010