Pende of Gungu
The Pende, originally from Angola, arrived in southwest DR Congo in the 17th century. They are governed by small kingdoms or chiefdoms, in which the chiefs serve as peacemakers and orators to keep the community united. Chiefs are responsible for mediating with the ancestors who are essential for “Kifutshi” the wellbeing of the community.
Chief Lwange Kibala Aristote of Gungu Town is renowned for his passion for Pende Culture. Instead of going to school in his youth he journeyed to Angola to seek his fortune trading diamonds. With his profits from gemstones he built a village museum, filling it with fourteen thousand Pende masks and artifacts. He also established the National Festival of Gungu, a biennial three-day festival to celebrate the unique aesthetics of Pende masks, showing their ritual use in performance together with the important role they play in the passages of life and the protection of his people.
Traditionally, Pende masks are danced to appease the ancestors, protect chiefs and kings and facilitate the passage of important funerals. They are also used in acts of sorcery which to this day, despite the influence of Christianity, underlies the modern Pende world.
Pende masks are among the most dramatic works of all African art. All told, about twenty Character Masks and seven Masks of Power appear in ceremonies such as the millet-planting celebration, circumcision and initiation rites, and the ritual of enthronement of a chief.
Masks of Power such as the Kitenga with its large red disc face featuring white eyes on stalks and hundreds of kulukulu feathers, and the three headed Gimbombi mask who has the ability to kill and even eat a wrong doer have a strong presence at the festival. Also important are Character Masks representing human types such as the chief, the diviner, and the lover, which delight the crowd with their comedic antics. Even more dramatic entertainment masks include the stilt dancers known as “Tall Men Walking”, the raffia clad chameleon who seeks to entertain with symbolic gestures, and the sorcerers who dramatically arrive with arrows or daggers protruding from their cheeks.
Chief Kibala’s passion for preserving his culture is reflected in both his museum collection of masks as well as in his biennial festival filled with ritual performances that continue to imbue the masks with meaning.