Here are five ancient masks that date back to the early and late 19th and early 20th century.

Shoulder Mask aka d’mba
Made of wood and metal
Late 19th century

The d’mba and shoulder mask represents an abstraction of the ideal female role in society. She is the universal mother who is honored because she has borne many children and has nursed them to productive adulthood. She is the vision of woman at her zenith of power, beauty, and effective presence. The pendulous breasts of the d’mba represent the concept of the mother nurturing her children and protecting the community.

Buffalo Mask
Made of wood and paint
Early 20th century

This buffalo mask, with a ridge running from head to nose and an elegant tapered muzzle, is characteristics of carvings from the Grassfields area of western Cameroon. The buffalo is a potent image of virility, strength, courage, and power in western Africa, and this mask may have been used to dance at the funeral of a secret society member as a sign of respect and honor.

Helmet Mask aka agwe chaka
Made of wood, human hair, hide, and metal
Early 20th century

The stretch and dried animal hide, used to cover the surface of this helmet mask (agwe chaka), makes it particularly striking. Before it was performed, the skin of this mask was rubbed with oil, causing the skin to glisten, while the eyes were highlighted with white kaolin clay. This evocative mask was originally commissioned for the use of the Nchibe Society, in particular for the funerals of important men within the community. In addition to the mask, the performer wore a large gown, with a raffia sack tucked over his back. This sack was meant to suggest the carrying of a child, who symbolically would replace the celebrated deceased.

Female Mask aka ngoin
Made of wood, copper, glass, beads, cowrie shells, metal, fiber, and cloth
Early 19th century

Precious materials — beads, cowrie shells, and copper sheeting — enhance the royal status of this mask. The central beaded crest suggests the hairstyle of a royal titled wife. Kekum njang masks appear exclusively upon the first public appearance of a new fon (king), and typically precede the fon and royal wives in procession. Kekum njang masks do not dance, but instead stride gracefully, accompanied by xylophone music and shouts from the public eagerly anticipating the appearance of their new leader.

Helmet Mask aka mukenga
Made of cloth, cowrie shells, glass beads, iron, feathers, palm fiber, wood, and cane
Early 20th century

With an abundant cowrie shells and symbolic elephant’s trunk, this mask is the most important of the Kuba royal masks and emphasizes the wealth and power of the nyeem (king). Cowrie shells imported via the Indian ocean to the Kasai River region of central Africa, were used as a currency often in exchange for ivory. As a principal commodity of the transatlantic trade, ivory was strictly controlled by the nyeem. Additionally, the strength and majesty of an elephant represent ideal characteristics for a king to embody.

Credits: Saint Louis Art Museum

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