Pende Kipoko Helmet Mask, Democratic Republic of Congo

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Item: Pende Kipoko Helmet  Mask. Size: H29 x W26.5 x D26 cm Medium: Carved wood, Paints & Pigments. Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo (see ethnographic notes below) Provenance: Willem J Wales Collection, South Africa.

The 250,000 to 500,000 Pende people settled in the region near the Loango and Kasai Rivers. They are governed by a central authority, but pay allegiance to family chiefs, known as Djigo. The tribe members are divided into numerous territorial groups, the two most important being in Kwilu and Kasai. The Pende political system is mainly controlled by lineage and marriage. There is no recognized central political power, and the chiefs that do exist do not exercise significant authority.


The extended family seems to serve the needs of social control within individual communities. The Pende are a matrilineal people, and the eldest maternal uncle in a family is usually recognized as heading the lineage, a position that entails ensuring the well-being of the family and taking care of the ancestors.The Pende are mainly farmers who produce millet, maize, plantain, and peanuts. The women do the majority of the farm work and are wholly responsible for selling goods in the community markets. The men help with the clearing of the fields and also contribute to the diet with occasional hunting and fishing in the numerous local rivers.


 The ancestors (mvumbi) are placated through various rituals and offerings. The family head is responsible for taking care of the shrines and appeasing the spirits. The Pende recognize that spirits may be either good or bad, depending on the manner in which they died. Also, when ancestors are neglected they will cause bad things to happen to the family. The result may be sickness or hardship, both of which require a visit to the local diviner to determine the best way to appease the spirits.

Blacksmiths enjoyed enormous prestige, vestiges of which are still alive today. Blacksmiths and chiefs are considered of equivalent social status. When one or the other visits a village, his arrival must be honored by a day of rest for the entire population. Even though the society is matrilinear, the sculptor’s profession is transmitted from father to son. The ancestors are honored most especially during the masked celebration held in sanctuaries in the chiefs’ huts or on the edge of the forest. A statue of the chief’s wife sometimes stands atop the roof; it symbolizes fertility and emphasizes the importance of women.

Pende masks are among the most dramatic works of all African art.   All told, about twenty characters and seven “masks of power” appear in ceremonies such as millet-planting celebration or circumcision and initiation ritual, and the ritual of enthronement of a chief. There are two styles: the western one of the Kwilu with its mbuya mask characterized by a somber, gloomy expression, and the Kasai style that is more geometric and colorful. The Kwilu Pende are especially well known for their masks that were originally used for circumcision ceremonies but later became accessories for a type of popular theater. Neck pendants carved by the Kwilu Pende as tiny replicas of masks must be placed among the most exquisite examples of African micro-sculpture. Generally made of ivory, but sometimes of wood, bone, metal, these pendants serve as protective amulets. Kasai masks are decorated with red and black triangles on a sienna background. The minganji, or masks of power, represent the ancestors; the mbuya, or village masks, represent human types, such as the chief, the diviner, the epileptic with a twisted mouth, the madman or man in a trance, the widow, the lover, or the executioner.

Among the major works of eastern (Kasai) Pende are fairly large sculptures intended either to glorify the chief's house or to serve as protective doorposts. The Pende also make ritual or practical objects, such as chairs, stools, commanders' stuffs, flutes, horns, whistles, drums, weapon, adzes, cups, mortars, and divination instruments. 


African Origins, based in Melbourne, Australia since 1997, Online Tribal Art Gallery