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Senufo Kpelie mask

Senufo Kpelie mask
Senufo Kpelie maskSenufo Kpelie maskSenufo Kpelie maskSenufo Kpelie mask
Tribe: Senufo
Country: Ivory Coast
Ritual: Poro
Name: Kpelie
Materials: Wood
Provenance: Guy Earl Smith Tribal Art Auction, Sydney 2006. Andrew Turley SuagaCollection 2006.
Comments: There are multiple areas of damage on this mask and some areas were badly dessicated. The wood is extremely light. Its age is estimated at circa 1960.

Senufo face masks, or kpelie (also known as Kpelie Yehe, Kodelle or Kulie) are used in Poro Society initiation rituals for boys, adlescents and adults, at funerals to lead the spirit of the deceased and at harvest festivals. Kpelie, always owned and worn by a man, represents ancestors and has associations with the feminine ideals of beauty and fertility.

Kpelie is generally small in size (10 to 15 inches) and is joined to a costume that covers the wearer's whole body. Usually they are of delicate workmanship compared with the larger masks of the same tribe. The mouth is usually projecting, sometimes with teeth showing and arched eyebrows form a continuous pattern above a long and slender nose. They combine both human and animal features.

The two protruberances extending from the lower cheeks (one has been damaged in this case) are said to represent "legs" that connect the spirit with the earth. According to Garard who traces the Kpelie-Yehe back to the Do masks of the Islamized Dyula, the "legs" actually represent ear pendants of the type clearly recognised as such in earlier Dyula pieces. On either side of the temples are semi-circular and rectangular shapes that represent the stylised coiffure worn by the senufo and the central shapes at the side represent ears according to Wassing.

The figures on the heads of Kpelie masks vary and represent an ancestor closely connected with the societies origin. Wassing provided the following meanings: a comb the symbol of agriculture, a hornbill (as the double representation on this mask) linked to the sculptor metal smiths, a bundle of stylised palm nuts are a symbol of wood carvers and small human figures connected with merchants.

According to Segy the same type of mask is also cast in brass, it often has a dark patina, but is not usually used in rituals and is a more recent production.

Other styles of Kpelie exist in northern Cote d'Ivoire and southern Mali. Along with face masks, components of the masquerade include things held (an iron staff or horsetail dance whisk), instumental accompanyments, lyrics and a costume. The costume consists of a collar or cloak made of long fibres, a knotted robe decorated with black lozenge shapes and red fibres bunched together.


  1. African Masks of the Barbier Mueller Collection. Prestel Verlag Munich. 1998.
  2. Sieber and Walker, "Afican Art in the Cycle of Life". Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC: 1987
  3. JWassing, Rene S. African Art; its background and traditions. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1968
  4. Segy, Ladislas. African Sculpture Speaks. New York: DaCapo Press, 1975.
  5. Garrard, 1993, commentaries in Jean Paul Barbier Art of Cote d'Ivoire from the Collections of Barbier-Muller Museum, Geneva.