Ngongo (Initiation Mask)

Shifola (Male Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Lwalu (some sources use 'Lwalwa') in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola are primarily known as mask makers. Sculptors occupy a privileged place in society (such as community chiefs) and are responsible for the initiation and circumcision of young men and boys. They are also responsible for creating the masks used by the ngongo (also called bangongo) secret society during these initiation ceremonies.

There are four key types of wooden Lwalu masks:

  • Nkaki male mask (also called mkaki in various sources)
  • Shifola male mask (also called cifola in various sources)
  • Mvondo male mask (also called mfondo and nvondo in various sources)
  • Mushika female mask (also called kashika in various sources)

The masks created are worn by masqueraders, during nighttime performances and in groups of ten, to celebrate the circumcision of the young initiates. In the past, when humans were still sacrificed during the initiation, the masked dancers were also said to pacify the spirits of victims and to obtain their assistance as intermediaries between the living and the spirit realm. Some sources state that ngongo masks are also danced to ward off misfortune during the hunt.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all ngongo masks:

  • Facial representations composed of geometric elements
    • Sharply angled planes
    • Sharply cut forehead
    • Diamond shaped volumes
    • Smooth unadorned surfaces
  • Wears shinsompolo headdress
  • Concave face
  • Long horizontal slit eyes (shaped like thin rectangles)
    • White shadowed eyes
    • Eyes end in stylised incision on the temples
  • Raised scarification keloids between ears and eyes in form of rounded elevations
  • Ears are small
  • Large aquiline nose
  • Small worn hole under nose
    • Small cord is knotted through hole (cord is clasped between teeth of dancer)
    • Through the hole under the nose is secured a small piece of cord, used to clench between the teeth to keep the mask in place during the dance
  • Lips are fleshy, protruding above a pointed chin
  • Painted red
    • Sometimes blackened by smoke and or dyes

Sub-type variations (shifola male mask):
NOTE: Male and female mask forms distinguished through handling of prominent noses

  • Carved forehead overhanging a concave triangular face
  • Shorter, more rounded, hooked nose

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