Suku, Democratic Republic of Congo, Early 20th century
Wood, pigments, fiber (raphia)
Height : 60 cm without headdress
Provenance : Important private collection, Belgium
Sotheby’s Paris, 16 April 2003, lot 112
Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Collection, Toronto
In a 1938 letter to Joseph Maes, then curator at the Musée de Tervuren, the Jesuit missionary Leon de Beir writes that he’s been trying to acquire a Kakuungu mask from one of the Yaka and Suku villages, but these “fetishists” guard them till their last breath. Parting with them would mean a certain death.
The kakuungu is indeed a very powerful mask, reputed to be the oldest and the most powerful of all initiation masks. Its appearance is characterized by inflated cheeks and massive features under an impressive ra a mane. The present example has a prominent chin shaped like a ball, small protruding ears and mouth, revealing a dentition led to points. The overall surface is covered with multiple layers of kaolin and pigments, including blue laundry on the mouth. There is a small loss under the nose, and an old indigenous repair at the back on top of the mask.
The mask represents the original civilizing hero typified by the soothsayer who wears it, symbolizing an ancestor with antisocial powers. This mask was mainly used during the circumcision’s ritual of young boys, a ceremony which marks their entrance into manhood.
The mask was worn covering the head of the ceremony’s chief and had several functions attached to its frightening aspect. It scared young boys to remind them to respect the elders but was also used to scare away women, children and anybody with evil intentions from the ceremony. The kakuungu appears three times : the day of the circumcision, at the end of the boys enclosing and the end of the fast.
Despite its fearsome aspect, this mask embodies the well-being and fecundity of initiated people. When it was not employed, it was displayed in a sacred enclosure, a ritual place protected by a curtain of palm leaves symbolized by the raffia mane, which highlights the richness of nature.