The McClung plays a big role in the UT experience for many members of our campus community. To highlight these connections, we asked UT faculty and staff to tell us about an object in our collection that has impacted their classes, their students, or their own exploration within the museum.
Dr. Rosalind I. J. Hackett is a Chancellor’s Professor and has taught for more than three decades in the Department of Religious Studies. She is also an adjunct professor in Anthropology. When asked about our materials in our collections, Dr. Hackett chose to celebrate one of the objects that was on long-term display in our Decorative Experience exhibition.
“My favorite is the Kuba Mwaash a Mboy mask,” she states, “When taking my students to the McClung Museum to see art that is related to religion, especially from Africa, I make a beeline for this striking mask from the Kuba people (Bushoong clan). It dates back to the mid-twentieth century and comes from Zaire––now the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Kuba is a multi-ethnic kingdom in central Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kuba has rich material culture traditions. The Bushnoog clan is one such ethnic group in Kuba, and it serves as the ruling class.
Dr. Hackett is talking about the McClung’s mukenga, which is a helmet-type mask. This one has a slender, arching form on top represents an elephant trunk. It is flanked by two stylized tusks at its base. The beadwork and fabric reference a leopard. These striking features plus the intricate artistry symbolize power, leadership, and prestige. Masks like this are known to have been made as early as the in the 14th-century, and are traditionally worn by costumed dancers during funeral ceremonies in memory of certain elite clan members.
“This mask portrays the royal ancestor, Woot.” explains Dr. Hackett. “There are different stories regarding the origins of these masks but I like the one that claims it is the representation of a troublesome spirit (Moshambwooy) by the king Bo Kyeen for his community.”
Woot is considered by the Kuba to be the first man created, and thus, their first ancestor. By wearing the mask, a dancer connects himself to Woot, and current and past kings. Since it has ties to Woot and kings, the mukenga mask is decorated with symbols of leadership and wealth like cowry shells originating in the far away Indian Ocean and once used as currency; the fur of the powerful leopard; and the honorable elephant.
“This mask is meaningful to me as I was able to include it in my book, Art and Religion in Africa (1996),” concludes Dr. Hackett, and with that, she highlights the levels of scholarship that this and other objects held within the McClung’s collections can provide. As an academic museum, such cross-campus impact is critical to our mission. We strive to benefit student learning and faculty research. You can read more about this mask in our previous #On Display post.
In July 2021, this object went back into storage to rest after its presentation in the Decorative Experience. Exposure to the rigors of exhibition lighting, even at it most dim, causes irreparable damage over time. This is especially true for objects like this mask that are comprised of textile, leather, and organic fibers like fur. We know many of us will miss seeing this striking mask readily, but it is critical for a museum to balance showcasing and preserving the collections for which we are responsible so they last into perpetuity. You can hear more about mukenga masks, the stories they tell, and see how they are carefully stored in the video below.