Monday 21 November 2016

Coffee Bean Eyes

Fondling a Kusu Mask
My friend Maia recently gave up her job to turn her house into a café and night school. It's called Casa Keza, a Spanish-themed tapas bar in Kigali. The official opening was a couple of days ago. Check it out on Facebook

As well as teaching fiction there, I've also started to help a local trader from Caplaki craft village to market his wares. He deals in Congolese masks, and I've developed something of a fascination. I can now confidently identify several tribes: Luba, Teke, Tetela, Punu, Lega, Bembe, Chokwe and Songye. There are many more that I don't know.

Tetela mask, tribe of the first prime minister
of the DRC, Patrice Lumumba

Ancestor jars, like those in Sierra Leone

Top Right: death gathers in mask of the Lega Bwami society.

Right: From the secret male Elanda society of the Bembe.
Left: Pwo, first female ancestor of the Chokwe

Something really struck me the other day. Someone posted on Twitter about how bored they were of the US election. To illustrate this, they posted a picture of Ramesses II's mummy. Because I'd been staring at pictures of Congolese masks for the past three days, it really caught my attention.

There's a couple of common features with masks. The first is the high, arched brow, seen in the central and left mask above, the other is a triangular nose, and the third is what is often referred to as 'coffee bean eyes,' because the eyes look like dried coffee beans. The Kusu mask at the top of this post is a perfect example, and Pwo in the bottom picture. They often look sunken in deep circular pits.

What struck me about the mummified features of Ramasses, is that he displays all three of these traits perfectly: the rainbow brow, the triangular nose and the coffee bean eyes. He even has the square jaw of the Songye kifwebe. It certainly started me speculating about ancient African death rites and whether there is a stylistic difference between elemental spirit masks and ancestor spirits. I'd love to hear from anyone with more knowledge on this subject.

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