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Leuvensesteenweg 13
3080 Tervuren - Belgium
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Masterpieces in the exhibition

'Giant Masks of the Congo. A Belgian Jesuit ethnographic heritage'

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Isiimbi, Mbwoolu
ritual statue
Kazeba mask  Kikaku panel Mweelu mask
Letter sent by S. Mulebo to Father de Sousberghe


Isiimbi, Mbwoolu ritual statue

SJ.4167, J. Van de Vyver © RMCA

Ethnic group: Yaka
Materials: wood, pigments
Collector : Father  L. De Beir (SJ) / in the 1940s
Dimensions :  H. 24 cm

Although the exhibition entitled Giant Masks from the Congo. A Belgian Jesuit ethnographic heritage is mainly devoted to the Kakuungu masks from what is now the DR Congo, other objects are also included in the exhibition which were collected by the Jesuits during the colonial period.

Here we present a statue used in the Mbwoolu ritual, formerly performed by the Yaka in the DRC. From an ethnographic perspective, the Mbwoolu ritual was intended to treat various ailments including impotence, mobility problems and recurrent nightmares. A Mbwoolu practitioner would own a set of statues and might add to his collection over a period of time.

Most Mbwoolu figurines are rough and misshapen. Some have shrunken limbs while others have only one leg or one eye. They represent the various states of incompleteness of the patients who came to consult the ritual practitioner. The statue shown here represents a man suffering from severe paralysis of the lower limbs.

This piece differs from other similar statues in that it bears the name of a specific, well-known individual, namely Isiimbi (died November 1941). Isiimbi's political influence was inversely proportional to his physical weakness and he was treated with admiration mingled with fear, due to the fact that Isiimbi was said to have special power over the ancestors and over certain categories of spirits. He was also a guardian of memory, and was called upon as an authoritative figure to resolve major disputes. News of his death spread for many miles around and there was even some hesitation to bury him like an ordinary mortal. Soon after the death of Isiimbi, one of the initiates of the Mbwoolu ritual added a statue representing Isiimbi to his family of figurines. Later this piece came into the possession of Jesuit priest Léon De Beir (1903-1983), who had also known Isiimbi.

It is thanks to collections like this one, which were assembled by a large number of Jesuits, that it is now possible for the general public to admire these African objects, these "fetishes" which people all too often imagine to have no history behind them. The object was kept in the Missiology Museum in Leuven-Heverlee (Belgium) until 1998 before being placed on deposit at the RMCA together with other items from the Jesuits' collection.


  • Father DE BEIR, L., 1975, Religion & Magie, p. 182-183.
  • VOLPER, J., 2015, Catalogue of the exhibition Giant Masks of the Congo. A Belgian Jesuit etnographic heritage, RMCA, Tervuren.

Kazeba mask

EO.0.0.34145, collection RMCA Tervuren; photo R. Asselberghs, RMCA Tervuren ©

Material: wood (Croton myumbensis), fibres and pigments
Collector : Father O. Butaye (SJ)
Dimensions : H. 60 cm.

Among the Yaka and the Suku, people of the south-western DR Congo, the most ritually important mask of the mukanda (male initiation rite) is the enormous kakuungu or red giant, sometimes accompanied by its female counterpart kazeba.

The kakuungu was the exclusive possession of the isidika, the specialist in charms used during the mukanda and could not be worn by the circumcised youths. Kakuungu’s primary role was to protect the young novices in the mukanda camp from all harmful acts against them by the baloki (sorcerers). The isidika could be accompanied during this outing by an assistant wearing the kazeba mask. Unlike the other mukanda masks that danced exclusively at the end of the rite, the ‘red giant’ also worked its power outside this specific context. It was also asked to heal certain afflictions such as impotence and sterility.

The kazeba can be considered as the female counterpart of kakuungu. Shapewise, kazeba and kakuungu are similar, but the former is smaller than the latter. Both can wear a white chin symbolizing the beard of an old person. This beard is not specific to male masks. In popular belief among the Yaka and the Suku, the aged were often considered to possess magic powers. The old man’s beard of the kakuungu/kazeba is an iconographic allusion to this magical power.

Kikaku panel

SJ. 568, collection RMCA Tervuren; photo J.-M. Vandyck, RMCA Tervuren ©


Ethnic group: Nkanu, DRC
Material: wood and pigments
Dimensions : L. 101 cm

The Zombo and the Nkanu are two eastern Kongo communities that are very close to the Yaka, from whom they adopted the circumcision rite. Their ritual’s proceedings are distinguished by an episode involving objects sculpted in this context by only these two communities.

As the end of the retreat approaches, the circumcised youths are brought before a canopy-like structure called ‘kikaku’ whose walls are decorated with superb polychrome panels combining abstract painted patterns and high relief sculptures. Along with the polychrome statues placed on the floor of the kikaku, they are an integral part of the teaching given to the novices.

The Nkanu sculpted several panels of this type representing a Gaboon viper capturing a small antelope. This scene can be found sculpted on certain Yaka masks.

Mweelu mask

EO.0.0.26514, collection RMCA Tervuren; photo J. Van de Vyver, RMCA Tervuren ©

Ethnic group: Yaka, Gingungi region DRC
textile, pigments, fibres, calabash and feathers
Father J. Van Wing (SJ), registered in 1922
Dimensions :
H. 40 cm

While masks are always closely associated with the rite of passage of the mukanda, their formal and stylistic characteristics vary significantly from region to region. The materials used in the manufacture of the masks make possible to distinguish those of a more rital nature forom those that are essentially meant to dance at the end of the mukanda.

Among the Yaka, the masks made of braided fibres of canvas on a frame play a greater symbolic and ritual role than dance masks with faces sculpted from wood.
This mweelu mask does not have a face sculpted in wood but a head in braided raffia topped with feathers, and eyes and mouth made from calabash fragments. Mweelu is present within the confines of the ritual enclosure to protect the young boys and make them adhere to dietary restrictions; it serves as the go-between for the village and the initiation enclosure; and, worn by an experienced initiate, goes to neighbouring villages to steal food for the camp. At the end of the ritual, it fetches kaolin from a leader and brings the newly circumcised boys to the public square where the closing feast is held, but does not dance there.

Letter sent by S. Mulebo to Father de Sousberghe (SJ) on 8 March 1960


 The archives of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren contain a letter dated 8 March 1960 addressed to Father Léon de Sousberghe (1903-2006). This was written to him not by a European academic, but by his Pende informer from the Katundu chiefdom, Samuel Mulebo.

Through his extensive ethnographic research, Father Léon de Sousberghe became essential reading for anyone interested in Pende art and culture. A trained academic (doctor of philosophy, doctor of law and researcher at IRSAC/IWOCA – the Institute for Scientific Research in Central Africa), he published several articles and a major work soberly entitled l’Art Pende (1959). This book laid the first real foundations for the study of Pende sculpture. Soon after its publication, it was the subject of a number of glowing reviews, such as that by Pierre Bonenfant in the Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire in 1961. However, the most moving response to this magisterial survey is a little-known one.

In this letter, the man who had passed on to de Sousberghe much of what he knew warmly congratulates the missionary on the work he has done on Pende culture, which was then in the throes of gradual and inexorable change. In his introduction, de Sousberghe expressed the modest hope that the ‘fragmentary information’ he had gathered might be of some use, and here he seems to receive a response from Samuel Mulebo, his attentive reader and someone who knew what he was talking about: ‘Reverend Father, I must tell you that you have done very good work for our Pende land, especially for future Pende who will not see what our ancestors did...’. This fine compliment from the shores of Lake Matshi certainly touched de Sousberghe more than those of scholarly circles in Brussels. And this is hardly surprising, as this Jesuit priest was a man who, for much of his long life, laboured modestly to preserve and transmit the memory of a people whom he loved deeply.  

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