Sunday, January 7, 2018

Excerpts About The Traditional Meanings Of Specific Colors, Designs, & Objects In The Kuba & Luba Ethnic Groups Of The Democratic Republic Of The Congo

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post is Part I of an ongoing series that presents quotes from various online articles that provide information about the meanings of certain colors, designs, and objects in specific traditional African cultures.

The excerpts in this post refer to the traditional cultures of the Bakuba ethnic group (Democratic Republic Of The Congo) and the Baluba ethnic group (Democratic Republic Of The Congo).

Seven YouTube videos of Baluba and Bakuba culture are also included in this post.

The Addendum to this post provides information about the significance of cowrie shells which were (are) used a lot in African artistic decorations, among other functions.

Use pancocojams' internal search engine or click the "traditional and contemporary African face and body painting" tag below to find other pancocojams posts on this subject.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

Thanks to the University Of Iowa researchers and thanks to other researchers who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.

Since at least 2015, there have been a number of YouTube tutorials about "African Face Painting" (also given as "African Tribal Painting"). Many of these videos focus on painting temporary designs made out of dots, lines, swirls, and/or other geometric figures on one's face and/or body or on another person's face/body.

The appropriateness of Black people and other people in the United States and other Western cultures wearing so-called "African tribal" face and body painting has been and continues to be hotly debated. Click for a 2016 pancocojams post on the subject of whether it's culturally appropriate for Black people in the African Diaspora (and other people) to paint dots and other so-called African tribal designs on their face and/or body.

Rather than add to that debate, I've chosen to focus on questions that continue to be asked in a number of discussion threads of YouTube videos of these "African Tribal Painting" tutorials. This post and some other posts in this pancocojams series addresses the question: "Which African ethnic groups* do these painted designs (or designs like this) come from?"

Most of the publishers of these tutorials respond to these questions by saying that their designs are "inspired" by various (usually unnamed) African "ethnic groups"*.

*Note that I've substituted the term "ethnic group" for "tribe" as I consider "tribe" to be a term that's loaded with all sorts of negative European colonial connotations.

In this pancocojams series I'll provide some information gleaned from the internet that provides some information about the meanings of colors in traditional African face and body painting, scarification, masking, and sculpturing.

Use pancocojams's internal search engine or click the "traditional and contemporary African face and body painting" and "meanings of colors in traditional African cultures" tags below to find other pancocojams post on this subject.

By no means is this post meant to be a definitive account of the meanings of colors, designs, and objects in traditional African cultures.

I have very little knowledge about this subject and I'm learning as I go...

Notice that some of the excerpts in this series refers to traditional African masks as I believe that descriptions of those masks may be useful in helping to explain the meaning of temporary face and body painting or permanent scarification in those specific African cultures.

Of course, many contemporary African face/body painting in Africa and elsewhere may the results of the painter's own creativity, and have very little or no real (authentic) traditional African cultural source and meaning.

Excerpts #2 and Excerpt #3 describe a photograph given on that page.

The excerpts are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only.

I added italics for statements that describe or explain the significance of colors, designs, or objects.

"A Kuba Mask" by Bonnie E. Weston
"The Kuba live in the Lower Kasai region of central Zaire in a rich environment of dense forest and savanna. Organized into a federation of chiefdoms, the almost 200,000 Kuba are a diverse group of over eighteen different
peoples unified under the Bushong king. They share a single economy and, to varying degrees, common cultural and historical traditions. Agriculture is the main occupation, supplemented by hunting, fishing, and trading. The name "Kuba" comes from the Luba people to the southeast. The Kuba call themselves "the children of Woot"—after their founding ancestor (Vansina 1964:6;1078:4).

Praised as "God on Earth," the king, nyim, is a divine ruler who controls fertility and communicates with the
creator, Mboom. The royal court at Nsheng is a hierarchical complex of councils and titled officials who advise the king and balance his power. Outlying Kuba chiefdoms are largely autonomous, organized on models analogous to those of
the capital but on a lesser scale (Vansina 1964:98-99; 1978:216). Kuba society parallels governmental organization in that it is stratified. Yet the Kuba people prize hard work and achievement, and while position of birth may secure advantage, it is not binding (Vansina 1964:188;1968:13,15).

Kuba religion, however, is not highly organized. The creator, Mfcoom, is recognized but is not formally worshiped.
More consideration is given to Woot, who led the Kuba migration "up river" and established matrilineal descent, male initiation, and kingship. Local nature spirits, tended by priests and priestesses, are actively involved in people's lives, notably in matters of fertility, health, and hunting. The Kuba have no ancestor cult but do believe in reincarnation (Vansina 1964:9-10).

Kuba arts primarily address status, prestige, and the court; they are manifestations of social and political hierarchy.

Rank and wealth are expressed in extensive displays of regalia: jewelry, rich garments of embroidered raffia cloth, ceremonial knives, swords, drums, and elaborated utilitarian items. Valuable imported cowrie shells and beads
emblellish garments, furniture, baskets, and masks.

The outstanding Kuba style diagnostic is geometric patterning used to embellish the surfaces of many objects. These designs are woven into raffia textiles and mats, plaited in walls, executed in shell and bead decoration, and
incised on bowls, cups, boxes, pipes, staffs, and other forms including masks. All art forms and designs are laden
with symbolic and iconographic meaning, and the same is true of the rich Kuba masquerades.

Masking was first introduced by a woman who carved a face on a calabash, the original model for initiation masks.
The invention was taken over by men, incorporated into initiation, and remains a male privilege. Once Bushong boys move into the nkan initiation shelter, they can wear masks and make excursions into the village frightening women and small children. More powerful masks are worn by initiation officials. The masked Kuba dancer is, in every instance, a spirit manifestation (Torday 1910:250; Vansina 1955:140).

Three royal mask types exist: the tailored Mwaash aMbooy, representing Woot and the king; the wooden face mask, Ngady Mwaash aMbooy, the incestuous sister-wife of Woot; and the wooden helmet mask, Bwoom, the commoner. These characters appear in a variety of contexts including public ceremonies, rites involving the king, and initiations. Although their dances are generally solo, together the three royal masks reenact Kuba myths of origin (Cornet 1982:254,256; Roy 1979:170).


Bwoom appears on the nkan "initiation fence" of the Bushong (Vansina 1955:150-151) and in other initiation contexts. Little is known of this mask (or indeed most Kuba arts) outside of the royal Nsheng tradition. A royal mask, Bwoom is sometimes worn by the king. Yet unlike Mwaash aMbooy, Bwoom does not appear at funerals, and it is never interred with the king or other dignitaries (Cornet 1982:270). The costume is similar to that of Mwaash aMbooy: heavy with profuse layers of raffia-cloth, bead and cowrie decoration, leopard skins, anklets, armlets, and fresh leaves. Eagle feathers or other prestigious media are added to the crown of the head when the mask is danced.

Despite regional variations, the Bwoom mask conforms to a distinct type. All styles feature strongly rendered
proportions dominated by an enlarged brow, broad nose, and usually naturalistic ears. Typical features include the
metal work on the forehead, cheeks, and mouth, bands of beads that embellish the face, and an expanse of beadwork at the temples and back of the head. Plate 8 has these plus patterned raffia-cloth covering the top of the head, with a fringe of hair. The blue beads set into the white band at the temples imitate ethnic tattoo patterns (Cornet 1982:266), and the design at the back of the head is one associated with royalty."

1. From

"Kuba titleholder tshik'l, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

"Among the nobles who surround the king, called “the uncles of the king,” the second rank is made up of those who are given the title tslhik’l. In addition to the king's collar (made of long straight wool), his two major symbols or badges of office are the axe he carries on his left shoulder and the headgear that is reserved only for him. This is generally in the shape of a Kuba hat, but is enriched with beads and cowries. It is surmounted by a tuft of red parrot leathers, and below by a tail that hangs in front of the face. The headgear is accompanied by a band of cowries across the chest. The white pigment on the forearm represents the tradition of rubbing oneself with kaolin for important ceremonies. In the corner of his mouth, the red parrot feather is a symbol of wisdom, and because it makes it difficult to speak, it is then a symbol of circumspection.

2. From
"Between two segments of the performance in the dance area at Mushenge, the moshambwooy and bwoom masks rest for a moment. On the former, we can admire the great white beard, symbol of the wisdom of this most senior of masks; the latter allows us to take a close look at his tunic covered with cowries and the long strands of raffia that are used to help direct the dance of this blind character."

3. WARNING: the photograph in this article is of women who are topless [not wearing anything over their chest]

"Women's dance in the royal court, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph by Angelo Turconi.

The women's dances in the royal palace are elaborate and refined, very slow and carefully choreographed, both in gesture and in step. The women's choir accompanies them, with the rhythm accentuated by the sound of gourds struck on the sand. The participants carry richly decorated flywhisks, which they wave dramatically. The first three performers have particularly spectacular costumes. These performers include two of the king's aunts and his most senior wife. One can identify three different types of women's skirts, each of which identifies the social rank of the wearer. The metal anklets symbolize nobility. These details contrast markedly with the simplicity of the women who follow dressed in simple raffia skirts dyed red with tukula powder, and without anklets. The women gesture symbolically."

1. From

"Mbudye official during initiation, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1988. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

The most important function of the Mbudye association was to initiate potential rulers and other officeholders into Luba esoteric knowledge. Initiation rites consisted of four stages, during which didactic devices were used to convey complex information about the origins and premises of Luba kingship. During the third level of initiation, wall paintings were used to illustrate migrations and to show sacred sites where spirits reside across the Luba landscape. During this level, each initiate adopted a spirit persona and became clairvoyant, as reflected by the white lines of enlightenment painted around the official’s eyes. But only during the fourth and final stage of lukasa did an initiate achieve full mastery of the nuances of Luba royal precepts and prohibitions. As guardians of such knowledge, Mbudye officials could remove a king from office if he transgressed the royal codes."

2. From

[Pancocojams Editor's Warning: The photograph that is described includes a woman whose chest isn't covered.]

"Investiture ceremony for a Luba chief, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1988. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

During investiture rites, a Luba king or chief is transformed from an ordinary mortal into a sacred ruler. Here, two elder titleholders anoint a candidate to the office of territorial chief with white chalk to indicate ritual transition and accord with the spirit world. Chalk is a metaphor for the moon, which rises to brighten the sky each month after several days of darkness. Like the rising moon, a Luba ruler brings enlightenment to his people in the form of sound leadership and heightened vision. The investiture of a king is also compared to forging iron, for just as a blacksmith transforms raw metal into useful tools and weapons, so is an ordinary mortal transformed into a superhuman being through a ceremony called "the beating of the anvils," during which a dignitary would symbolically beat upon the knees of a king to signify the creation of sacred power."

3. From
"Luba diviner wearing beaded headdress, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1988. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

Once Bilumbu diviners have been "seized" by the spirit, they chalk their laces with pemba chalk, called "the diviner’s oil," and don accoutrements that reflect the spirit's special attributes. Bilumbu attire includes bead and shell necklaces, turtle-shaped arm bands, animal pelts, leathers, and the beaded headdress called nkaka, which refers to a pangolin. Pangolin scales are considered strong, durable, and resistant, and for this reason, they are often included in the medicinal compositions of Luba diviners and healers. An nkaka headdress is worn by all royal specialists who undergo possession, and the purpose of this colorful rectangular headband, with its juxtaposed isosceles triangles and lozenges, is to take hold of the spirit as it mounts the diviner’s head and to contain, control, and protect it—in the same way a pangolin wraps itself up in a ball, its horny scales defending it from danger.

Western Kasai region, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Mask (Mukenga), Late 19th/mid-20th century

Wood, glass beads, cowrie shells, feathers, raffia, fur, fabric, thread, and bells
57.5 x 24.1 x 20.3 cm (22 5/8 x 9 1/2 x 8 in.)

Laura T. Magnuson Fund, 1982.1504

Arts of Africa and the Americas
Gallery 137

Mukenga masks like this one* are worn at funerals of influential, titled men in the northern part of the Kuba kingdom. The mask's form and materials combine symbols associated with status and leadership. Its surface is comprised of raffia cloth upon which glass beads, cowrie shells, raffia fibers, and animal fur are attached. The carefully arranged cowrie shells, once prized as currency, signal wealth and status. The beard-like ruff of the large and dangerous colobus monkey refers to powers of the forest. A prominent trunk projecting upward and over the front of the mask represents the elephant, the supreme symbol of leadership.

Formed in the seventeenth century, the Kuba Kingdom unites an ethnically diverse population across the Western Kasai region of today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. This mask, called mukenga, is a regional variant of a Kuba royal mask that is made only in the northern part of the kingdom. The mask’s form and lavish embellishment are associated with wealth and status. Cowrie shells and glass beads, once highly valued imports, cover much of its surface. A stylized elephant trunk and tusks rise from the top, evoking the powerful animal and the wealth accrued by the Kuba in the nineteenth century through control of the ivory trade. The tuft of red parrot feathers that is suspended from the tip of the trunk and the spotted cat fur on the mask’s face are insignias of rank.

During the funerals of titled aristocrats, a member of the men’s initiation society may dance wearing the mukenga mask and an elaborate costume that includes many layers of woven raffia skirts and cowrie- and bead-laden belts, gloves, bracelets, and anklets. The deceased is laid out in identical attire, underscoring the association between the spirit, which is manifested through the performance of the mask, and the realm of the ancestors.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2009, p. 13.
An example of this mask is found as Video Example #4_ below.

Example #1: BASOKIN,Basongye a Kinshasa

ngandu a mushinga, Published on Oct 22, 2007

Musique folklorique du Peuple SONGYE de la LOMAMI terribles danses ancestrales royales pleines d'élégance!!Ouhhhh la fierté du MUSONGYE,souche pharaonique pure.....Eyendo Basongye ni m'Bakielengye m'BAKALANGA.Wonderful dancers and Maskers makers.
Votre serviteur
Google translation from French to English
"Folk music SONGYE of the LOMAMI terrible royal dances full of elegance !! Ouhhhh the pride of MUSONGYE, pure pharaonic strain ..... Eyendo Basongye ni m'Bakielengye m'BAKALANGA.Wonderful dancers and Maskers makers.
Your humble servant"
Here's information about Lomami Province
Country Democratic Republic of the Congo
Region Kasai region
Established 2015
Capital Kabinda


• Official French
• National Tshiluba

Example #2: Masterpiece Collection of African Kuba Textiles

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Published on Feb 23, 2011

Through April 10th, 2011, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is displaying a collection of Kuba textiles in the Ahmanson Building. These textiles from the Democratic Republic of the Congo were created by men and women of the Kuba culture. They are embellished with a dazzling array of geometric patterns. Modern artists including Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Gustav Klimt were inspired by African art and by Kuba textiles in particular...
Video production: Jun Tiangco

Example #3: Kuba Art in Washington, D.C.

TV2Africa, Published on Jan 18, 2012

The Kuba people from the Democratic Republic of Congo see patterns everywhere and their designs are being featured at Washington's Textile Museum. VOA's Carolyn Turner reports.

Example #4: BMA Voices: A Royal Man’s Mask (Mukenga) from the Kuba kingdom

artBMA, Published on Oct 6, 2014

Aden Weisel, Curatorial Assistant of Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia & the Pacific Islands, discusses a Royal Man’s Mask (Mukenga) from the Kuba kingdom (Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Information from
"Artist Unidentified. Kuba kingdom (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Royal Man’s Mask (Mukenga). 1970s. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of the Friends of the Arts of Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, and Amy Gould and Matthew Polk, Gibson Island, Maryland, BMA 2013.363"

Note that the video summary indicated that the narrative in the video could be read at that link, but no such narrative is found at that link.

Example #5: African Mwaash Ngady mask KUBA Congo RDC

David Norden, Published on Nov 10, 2014

Lot 42 African Mwaash Ngady mask - KUBA - Congo (RDC)
Ca. 1920-1940 - good condition

A portrait mask of the first Kuba king wife.
There are more than twenty different types of masks that function within the men's initiation society. The Kuba Ngaady mask represents the ideal of beauty. It is one of three important Kuba mask, on the old picture taken at Mushenge in 1909 shows a similar mask: Ngady aMwaash, Bwoom, and Mosh'ambooy mu shall.
The provenance of this fine mask that is to be dated between the two worldwars, is the collection of Gaëtan Schoonbroodt in Verviers, Belgium.

Size: 50 cm on its included base , 30 cm without.
Condition: One ear missing, as depicted.

Example #6: Danse Traditionnelle des Baluba, BAKUBA

b-one TV Congo, Published on Feb 6, 2015

Example #7 Kuba Kingdom

L’uomo di Mannheim, Published on May 21, 2017

The Giver of Life: Cowry Shell
by Moe | Dec 10, 2014
..."The mystical cowry shell is small, white and glossy, resembling the female life-giving organ that is an amulet which increases fertility, and gives life. A beautiful shell that many ancient cultures had regarded as an amulet to add vitality to life, and to prolong their lives to the point of immortality.

In ancient medical treatises these shells were often listed as one of the best medicines for many ailments, and long before we had the mighty paper dollar with the all-seeing eye emblazoned upon the backside, cowry-shells were used as money and a form of currency for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years.

Cowry-shells were used for centuries as medicine and currency in Africa, China, India; and with the Indians of North America such as the Ojibwa and Menomini Indians who had called it the sacred money-cowrie, that for centuries was used by medicine men in initiation ceremonies and shamanic rituals. They had also used these shells as money for a form of exchange.


The same ideas and connection in these ceremonies by these various cultures seems to prove they are somehow connected or related at sometime in the distant past. These themes of medicine, health, life, death, and resurrection with the cowry shell being the main symbol intuitively, tells me that there must be a science behind this mystical shell that is waiting to be discovered."
To reinforce a point that is made in this article, cowrie shells have a long history of being used for divination purposes in many regions of Africa. In addition, cowrie shells have also been used (and continue to be used) as mask, clothing, and hair decoration in the Africa continent, in the African Diaspora, and elsewhere.

This concludes Part I of this pancocojams series.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if the white "dots" that are found in many traditional and many contemporary African face/body painting are stylized depictions of cowrie shells.

    If so, the symbolism for cowrie shells would be (part of) the meaning for those dots.