Mukyeem (Woot Helmet Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Kuba believe that they are descendants of Woot, the first man created by God (called Mboom, Mfcoom or Ncyeem aPoong in different sources). As the founding father and thus an ancestor of all Kuba kings (known as nyim), Woot is commemorated is ceremonies and masquerade dances. He is symbolised in mukyeem helmet masks (also called mukyeeng or mukenga) used during funerals, initiation ceremonies and royal celebrations. When a mask is newly made, it is first worn and danced by the current ruler after which is can be used by other performers. Unique to the southern Kuba region, the mask depicts Woot and royal rulers with ideal elephant attributes; strength, wealth and size. Sometimes, at the death of a king, the mukyeem mask is buried with him and a new one made for the new king.

NOTE: It is believed that mukyeem masks also depict the current and past kings, nature spirits as well as Woot; the mask is said to communicate the continuity between Woot and current kings. It also serves to highlight the relationship between spirits and Kuba leaders, a relationship that brings prosperity and fertility to the community.

Distinguishing Features

  • Projecting, arching finial at the crown (elephant trunk)
    • Arc forward beyond face
    • Tip of some decorated with red parrot feathers (signify ability to communicate with spirits)
    • Some have two small tusks protruding from base of trunk
  • Fiber understructure
  • Large, disc-like eyes (no eye-holes in mask; dancer looks through the bottom of the mask)
  • Carved wooden eyes, nose, and mouth mounted on a flat fabric face
  • Carved wooden ears attached to back of either side of head
  • U-shaped padded collar attached to back of head
    • Some have three clusters of cowrie arrangements projecting from collar
  • Mask covered with cowrie shells and glass beads
    • Blue, red, black, and white beads form geometric patterns
  • Raffia and/or fur fringe attached to perimeter of mask

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