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Artwork Details

circa 1930
wood and pigment
12 5/8 in x 5 15/16 in x 2 in (32 cm x 15 cm x 5 cm)
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern


Subject Matter:

This wooden, alunga mask depicting an owl is attributed to the Bembe, who today live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The alunga was the most instrumental accessory used by members of the Kalunga association, an all-male secret society devoted to pacifying the forest spirit Alunga.  
The owl is associated with black magic and sorcery, malevolent spirits that disperse at night, and the “masters of the forest.” The owl also represents the qualities of wisdom and clairvoyance, or the ability to detect unseen forces. In addition to the owl, two snakes have been carved on the base of the mask. The snake symbolizes the creation of the world and is regarded as a mediator between the living and the subterranean world, between the sky and the earth. Thus, the bird as a winged creature is here paired with the subterrestrial serpent.  
At ceremonial dances, the alunga is worn by a high-ranking initiate of the Kalunga who carries the title “forest spirit.” The spirit accompanying the mask is intended to protect young male initiates against illness and death during the required period of seclusion. Upon the successful completion of all initiatory rites, the alunga is carried by the newly initiated youth during the subsequent celebratory festivities.  

Maurer, Evan M. and Niangi Batulukisi.  Spirits Embodied:  Art of the Congo, Selections from the Helmut F. Stern Collection.  Minneapolis:  The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1999. 

Physical Description:

This wooden, zoomorphic Bembe alunga mask represents an owl. The mask has an elongated, bell-shaped form, with much of its base pigmented black. The owl has two white, oval-shaped, concave oracular cavities with protruding, half-moon eyes and a long, narrow beak. The foot of the mask features two serpents that have been carved in relief and painted red, both of which are surrounded by white, geometric motifs.  

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