Punu Okuyi mask
This mask is a variant of the "masks of Ogowe", which are found throughout west and central Gabon, from the area around Lambarene in the north to the southern ethnic groups inhabiting the region bordering on the Republic of Congo and the peoples of the Kota complex in the east.
Such masks are called Okuyi or Mukudj by the Punu and are still worn during public ceremonies and funerals but primarily to entertain audiences on festive occasions. The performance which is extraordinarily beautiful, requires great skill, for it is accomplished on stilts that raise the dancer as much as ten feet above the ground.
The Okuyi mask represents an ideal female face. This is indicated by the scale-like keloid formation above the bridge of the nose (and sometimes seen on the temples of masks) consisting of 9 dots in a diamond or square which, according to field researchers, have a sexual connotation. Another sign of female gender is its coiffure.
With the hair piled high on the head and arranged in two braids at the sides, this coiffure recalls the hairstyle used by women in the region at the beginning of the twentieth century. In this example the braids are emphasized by a continuation of the braids in a woven band around the chin.
While the mask performance brings joy to the community, underlying its appearance is apprehension and unease. A talented dancer is vulnerable to envious adversaries who may attack him with sorcery. The Okuyi performer must be constantly vigilant and acutely aware of his surroundings to guard against the mystical onslaught.
- African Masks of the Barbier Mueller Collection. Prestel Verlag Munich. 1998.
- A History of African Art, Harry. N. Abrams Inc Publisher NY 2001.