Anthropomorphic bwami

Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lega

This mask was used within the Bwami initiation society. A semi-secret and very hierarchical association, it was responsible for the complex and codified transmission, throughout the lives of the initiated men and women, of knowledge conveying ethical and moral values that ensured the cohesion of the entire community.


Anthropomorphic bwami

  • Lega people
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo

  • 19th century

  • Wood, pigments, plant fibres

  • H 25.3cm; W 19cm; D 7cm


  • Former Marcel Lemaire collection, Brussels

  • Aaron Furman, New York

  • Alain de Monbrison, Paris

  • Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris

  • musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.26), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.

The work’s original context

This mask is used by the Bwami secret initiation society. It was banned by the Belgian colonial authorities. The narrative surrounding it today, like other objects from the past, originates from the ‘resurgence’ of the rituals observed by Daniel Biebuyck in the early 1950s.

This mask sheds light on the fascinating spiritual and ritual world of the Lega, established in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo within a territory encompassing the provinces of Maniema and South Kivu, in the Mwenga, Shabunda and Pangi regions, largely covered by dense tropical forest.

Kindi initiate sitting on a kisumbi stool, Kalima region (Maniema), 1967. © Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives - National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution

The Bwami initiation society: for community cohesion

The Bwami initiation system is a semi-secret association that plays a fundamental social, political, economic, religious, philosophical and artistic role in Lega society. This unifying institution was responsible for the extremely complex and codified transmission, throughout the lives of the initiated men and women, of knowledge conveying ethical and moral values  that ensured the cohesion of the entire community. Although not centralised, the Bwami is extremely hierarchical and is generally formed  of five ranks  or grades: Kongabulumbu, Kansilembo, Ngandu, Yananio and the highest rank, Kindi1. Women, the Bwami ranks for whom bear different names from those of men (Bombwa corresponding to Ngandu, Bulanda to Yananio and Bunyamwa to Kindi), can only join the Bwami once their husbands have reached Ngandu, the third rank.

As the members of the Bwami rise up the ranks of the association, they acquire increasing social prestige as well as access to increasingly complex strata of knowledge. Ascending each Bwami rank involves an intense initiation known as mpala, which lasts several days and the knowledge from which, adapted to each rank, is passed on through seven or eight staged scenes. These scenes are based on various metaphores2 as well as aphorisms, proverbs associated with scenarios, songs and dances, and natural objects (pieces of wood, stones, animal claws or teeth, bird beaks, etc.) often used together, and/or sculpted objects.

By introducing different components of real life, themselves intertwining various levels of ‘reality’, the Bwami is compared to a total artwork. As such, acquisition of knowledge through the intermediary of tangible material elements combined with immaterial elements (songs, dances, aphorisms, metaphors) expresses a subtle reflection on the ambivalence of the world and on the language used to define it. This process providing access to ‘moral perfection’ for the Lega culminates in the ultimate Bwami initiation ceremony devoid of any metaphors and using only works of art: beyond the material elements alluding to images composed of multiple strata and symbols, initiates gain access to the Revelation of the hidden meanings of the world, condensed into the artworks displayed to them.

These initiation objects known as masengo (sg. isengo), used in a ritualised dramatic context, together with these metaphors on many levels, represent an extraordinary polysemic wealth. Indeed, depending on the context in which they are used, they can represent an array of characters reflecting specific attributes,  themselves linked to positive or negative moral values that “explore standards for living - values and morals, accepted comportment, ideal social and familial relationships, and legal, ethical, religious, and political codes”3 of Lega society and reveal to the initiates who reach the ultimate ranks of the Bwami the most esoteric forms of knowledge and wisdom.


1 The last two ranks, Yananio and Kindi have their own subdivisions: Yananio is divided into Musagi wa Yananio and Lutumbo lwa Yananio, and Kindi into Kyogo kya Kindi, Musagi wa Kindi and Lutumbo lwa Kindi, the final rank.
2 The number of metaphors can be substantial even among the lower ranks. According to Daniel Biebuyck, between one hundred and three hundred metaphors associated with objects can be narrated during the initiation to the first rank Kongabulumbu. They often become increasingly complex with each rank, up to the final initiation, devoid of any metaphors.
3 Elisabeth L. Cameron, Secrets d’ivoire. L’art des Lega d’Afrique centrale, Actes Sud, Paris, 2013, pp. 59-60.

Lega masks

Although objects found in nature are used by the masters during initiation to all of the ranks of the association, the sculpted figures and masks are reserved for the highest ranks. Lega masks are thus used as mediums of instruction, but are also symbols of political and religious power, badges of prestige denoting the rank and status of their owner, in this case those of the highest ranks of Bwami. These masks are determined by precise criteria depending on their size, shape, material and the grade or rank of the wearer. They are categorised into five distinct types: lukwakongo, kayamba, idimu, muminia masks and lastly the lukungu mask made from ivory or bone, representing the ultimate rank of Lutumbo lwa Kindi. Additionally, although Bwami is not linked to official practices and worship of the ancestors, Lega masks stress a powerful connection to the world of the ancestors. This is evidenced by their names: lukwakongo meaning ‘death gathers in’, idimu ‘ancestor’ and lukungu ‘skull’. These masks are passed down from generation to generation, emphasising the filiation and continuity of Bwami members.

The Idimu mask

Unlike the small masks or ‘masquettes’ individually owned by the initiates up until their death, larger masks like this one are collectively owned. Small masks were generally hung from various parts of the body (the temples, the back of the head, the forehead, the arms, the shoulders and on the backs of their owners). They could be lined up on the ground, dragged by their beards or hung from a pala ritual fence to mark out a ritualistic space during a ceremony or brandished by hand as suggested by the sculpted handles on the back of some small masks. This transformed them into puppets incarnating a myriad of characters representing regulated moral and social values. The emphasis could be placed on particular values by designating a specific part of the face, the eyes for example, the absence of which can also be significant.

Larger masks like the idimu and muminia masks were worn over the face, from the temples or the top of the forehead. Idimu masks are generally made from wood, sometimes ivory. They have white kaolin surface, sometimes decorated with sober punctiform motifs that signify beauty. They were placed in the care of an elderly member of the Yananio or Kindi ranks and used for initiations to the corresponding grades. They could also be attached to a fence along with several smaller masks. In this context, they represented, according to Elisabeth L. Cameron “the source or man who brought the higher Bwami levels [...] all the members present who are represented by their individual mask.”4 For Daniel Biebyuck, they constitute “the supreme symbol of unity and cohesion for several ritual communities rallying around it, and is proof that the origin and structure of the rites [...] are part of a common historical tradition.”5

The idimu mask is also “associated with a particular well-remembered ancestor who lived several well-known generations ago (in genealogical recitations six to nine generations): thus for the kindi community it is an historical document. As an initiation object (isengo) it is ‘seen’ (cf. the Greek epopteia at Eleusis) in the climactic rites of the lutumbo lwa kindi initiations.”6



4 Idem, p. 187.
5 BIEBUYCK Daniel in BAEKE Viviane, DE PALMENAER Els, VERSWIJVER Gustaaf, Trésors d'Afrique, Tervuren, Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale, 1995, p. 378.
6 Biebuyck, Daniel, ‘A Masterpiece of Lega Art’ in Marguerite de Sabran, The Lega Jewel of the Adolphe and Suzanne Stoclet Collection, Sotheby’s, 22 June 2016, lot 41. 

History of the work and its background

This mask belonged to Belgium dealer and collector Marcel Lemaire up until 1967. The works in his collection - of outstanding artistic quality, particularly for the arts of Central Africa - are now found in major private and museum collections. In the late 1960s, this mask passed into the hands of Aaron Furman, a leading New York post-war dealer and collector, then much later to the Parisian art dealer Alain de Monbrison. Following in the footsteps of his mother Simone de Monbrison who opened a gallery in the late 1960s specialising in non-European art and archaeology, his gallery founded in 1980 on Rue des Beaux-Arts, at the heart of Paris’ Saint-Germain-des-Prés district, is now world renowned.

Selected bibliography and cartography


Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.



BAEKE Viviane, DE PALMENAER Els, VERSWIJVER Gustaaf, Trésors d'Afrique, Tervuren, Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale, 1995.

BARBIER Jean Paul, KECSKÉSI Maria, LASZLO Vadja, HAHNER-HERZOG Iris, L’autre visage : masques africains de la collection Barbier-Mueller, Paris, Adam Biro, 1997.

BOULANGER Michel, PLISNIER Valentine, L’art lega. Grandeur et humilité, Paris, Galerie Vallois, 2016.

BIEBUYCK Daniel, « The Function of a Lega mask » in Archives internationales d’ethnographie 47, 1954, pp. 108-120.

BIEBUYCK Daniel, Lega Culture: Art, Initiation, and Moral Philosophy among a Central African People, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973.

BIEBUYCK Daniel, The Art of Zaire, vol. II. Eastern Zaire, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986.

BIEBUYCK Daniel, La Sculpture des Lega, Paris ; New York, Galerie Hélène et Philippe Leloup, 1994.

BIEBUYCK Daniel, Lega. Ethique et beauté au cœur de l’Afrique, Brussels; Gand, KBC Banque & Assurance ; Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 2002.

BIEBUYCK Daniel, « A Masterpiece of Lega Art’ in Marguerite de Sabran, The Lega Jewel of the Adolphe and Suzanne Stoclet Collection», Sotheby’s, 22 june 2016, lot 41

CAMERON Elisabeth L. (Dir.), Secrets d’ivoire : l’art des Lega d’Afrique centrale, Paris, Actes Sud ; musée du quai Branly, 2013.

DE KUN Nicolas, « L’Art Lega » in Africa-Tervuren 12, 1966, pp. 69-99.

FALGAYRETTES-LEVEAU Christiane (Dir.), Initiés du Bassin du Congo, Paris, Musée Dapper, 2014.

LENAERS Constantin, « Chez les Warega » in Grands Lacs, n°82-84, 1946, pp. 65-69.

LIETARD L. Capitaine, « Les Warega » in Bulletin de la société Royale Belge de Géographie 3, 1924, pp. 133-145.

MULYUMBA WA MAMBA Itonga, « La structure sociale des Balega-Basile », Brussels, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 1977.

MUYOLO Lutala Amuri, Problématiques des arts Lega, Université nationale du Zaïre, 1974.

NEYT François, Fleuve Congo : arts d'Afrique centrale, correspondances et mutations des formes, Paris ; Brussels, musée du quai Branly ; Fonds Mercator, 2010.

YOGOLELO Tambwe, « Introduction à l’histoire des Lega : problèmes et méthodes » in Les Cahiers du CEDAF, série n°2, n° 5, 1975, pp. 3-27.