Kuba Information

Location: Southeastern Congo (Zaire)
Population: 250,000
Language: BaKuba (central Bant
Neighbors: Chokwe, Luba, Luluwa, Lele
Types of Art: Aside from beautiful cloth, the Kuba also produce carved wooden masks and figures. They also carve headrests, divination oracles, and anthropomorphic cups. The Pwoo Itok and Isheen Maal masks of the Kuba-Ngeende are very stylized and show specific features : a protruding forehead decorated with a series of triangular patterns, cone eyes with protruding pupils, sometimes encrusted by a strip of copper. Multiple holes in the surrounding whites of the eyes evoke the chameleon which can see everywhere. The face has a large triangular nose and a prominent mouth. Usually, the face is extended upward by a headdress made out of reeds and raffia fiber, or horns. Pwoo Itok and Isheen Maal (also called Pwoom Itok and ishyeenmaal or Shene Malula). This type of mask is found among the Kuba-Bushoong, the Shoowa, and the Ngeende peoples. According to some sources, Isheen Maal was inspired by Pwoo Itok. In any case, the difference between the two is hard to detect and in the literature they are seen as the same mask, with different names depending on where the mask was found. Most likely the Shoowa use the Pwoo Itok while the Kuba prefer the term Isheen Maal. The origin is unknown.Such masks were used as a dancing mask during the initiation of young men and among the Bushoong it was worn by members of the Batende, a secret regulatory society which had among its duties the apprehension of criminals. The Ngeende group claims to be descended from Ishweemy, one of the nine sons of Woot, the primordial founder of the Kuba Kingdom. Accordingly, the Ngeende are of special importance to the Kuba Kingdom and designated as the holders of the Kuba official charms, Muyum. They share not only a common history but also the same culture and traditions as the Kuba. Even today, they still send representatives to the Kuba-Bushoong court. The Ngeende live in small villages led by chiefs who rule with the council of elders. Understandably, their art has many congruities with the art of the Kuba-Bushoong, the Ngoongo, the Kete, and all of them produce masks. It is said that some Kuba masks such as this have been made by the Ngeende. The Ngeende masks tell the story of Woot and other important characters in the foundation of Kuba kingdom. These include Bongo (Mbwoom), Mukenge which is a variant of Moshambooy, Shala-Mushampoji, and another variant of Moshambooy without the elephant trunk, Ishendemala with goggle eyes, and Nyibita with a very elongated face. These masks were used at the funerals of notabilities and at initiation ceremonies.
History: In the 16th century, the Kuba peoples migrated from the distant north to their current location along the Sankuru River. When they arrived, however, they found that the Twa already lived there. The Twa were eventually absorbed into the Kuba Kingdom, but retained some independent cultural characteristics. The height of the Kingdom was during the mid-19th century. Europeans first reached the area in 1884, but the Kuba, being relatively isolated, were not as affected by the slave trade as many of the other peoples in the area. The Nsapo invaded during the late 19th century, and the Kingdom was broken up to a large extent.
Economy: The rivers which define the Kuba territory provide the fish consumed in the area. They also farm maize and cassava, both of which were imported from the new world. The Kuba weave beautiful raffia cloth, which is embroidered by the women and traded to surrounding areas.
Political Systems: The Kuba Kingdom is actually comprised of numerous smaller ethnic groups, including the Bushoong, Ngeende, Kel, Pyaang, Bulaang, Bieeng, Ilebo, Idiing, Kaam, Ngoombe Kayuweeng, Shoowa, Bokila, Maluk, and Ngongo. The King of Kuba is always Bushoong. Each of the ethnic groups has a representative in residence at the Bushoong court.
Religion: The Kuba oral history tells of the creation of the world by Bumba, who decreed that the Bushoong would always be the ruling class. This creator god is not formally worshiped. At one time the Kuba had a religion based on ancestor worship, but this seems to have died out, although divination is still practiced in order to discover causes of evil. Success during hunting is recognized as a gift from the gods. It is not incidental that diviners often employ carved wooden hunting dogs as rubbing oracles in order to arrive at their knowledge. Dogs are seen throughout the region as responsible for delivering the will of the god, whether it be through hunting or through the diviner.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project,