Bwoom (Commoner Helmet Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


During male initiation ceremonies (nkaan), a helmet mask called bwoom is danced; the performance is used to teach initiates about Kuba history, cultural values and to instil an appreciation for Woot (the founding father and ancestor of all Kuba kings).

There are differences in opinion about what bwoom represents; some sources point to the mask representing a commoner, while others point to it being a representation of a prince (the king's younger brother) or of a pygmy. Sources that point to it representing a pygmy believe that bwoom was created for the reigning king at the time, Miko mi-Mbul. A pygmy created the mask as an alternative to the royal mask mwaash ambooy, to be worn by the king to cure his mental illness (hence its local description 'a person of low standing scarcely worthy of being embodied by the king'). However bwoom is universally believed to be a nature spirit (ngesh; pl. mingesh) seen by nkaan initiates and used to reflect the influence of nature spirits on Kuba life.

Distinguishing Features

  • Wooden helmet mask
  • Made form single piece of wood
  • Sometimes mask covered with copper sheeting
    • Metal work on forehead, cheeks, and mouth
  • Enlarged forehead
  • Enlarged brow
  • Broad nose
  • Sunken cheeks
  • Naturalistic ears
  • Bands of beads embellish the face
    • Contours of eyes and mouth decorated with glass beads
    • Straight bead band from crown of head to tip of nose
    • 'V' shaped arc across forehead intersecting with straight band
    • Bead band from one side of head to the other bisecting eyes
    • Expanse of beadwork at temples and back of the head
  • Beard made of hide
    • Accentuated with glass beads
  • Cowrie shells and seedpods arranged around face
  • Goat skin on top of head
  • Eagle feathers added to top of head when the mask is danced

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