Helmet mask (mukenga)

mid–20th century

Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art
Dallas, United States

Among the Kuba peoples, as among most traditional African societies, the scale and duration of a funeral-from short and simple to days long and complex-is commensurate with the prominence of the deceased person during life. Masks with elephantine features appear at funerals of elders who were high-ranking members of a men's secret initiation society (fig. 43). The masquerader performs a dance in honor of the deceased who, although not a Bushoong-the group from which the Kuba king (nyim) was chosen-belonged to a particular aristocratic clan.

The mask is part of the Mukenga or elephant costume that personifies a high-ranking member of a secret society. The conical projection extending upward and over the front of the mask represents an elephant's trunk, and the small beaded panels at either side are its tusks. The product of labor-intensive craftsmanship, the mask is lavishly adorned with valuable cowrie shells, imported beads arranged in complex patterns, and the red tail feathers of an African gray parrot. All these elements are symbols of wealth, title, and elite status. In Kuba society, ownership and control of elephant ivory rests with the king.(8)

The white cowrie shells, which were used as currency before coins and paper money were introduced, evoke death and signify mourning and the ancestors' dry bones. Unlike most masks that cover the entire head, Mukenga Muykeem does not have eyeholes. Sighted attendants accompany the dancer wearing the "blind mask" as he performs ancient steps with pride, gravity, and dignity.

The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 64, pp. 188-189.


8. Binkley, in Ross, Doran H., ed. Elephant: The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture. Los Angeles: University of California, Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1992. pp. 284-286.


  • Title: Helmet mask (mukenga)
  • Date Created: mid–20th century
  • Physical Dimensions: Overall: 33 1/2 x 22 x 26 in. (85.09 x 55.88 x 66.04 cm)
  • Type: Costume
  • External Link: https://www.dma.org/object/artwork/4328566/
  • Medium: Raffia, wood, cowrie shells, beads, parrot feathers, and goat hair
  • culture: Kuba peoples
  • Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, gift in honor of Peter Hanszen Lynch and Cristina Martha Frances Lynch

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