Bamun Lineage mask
|Materials:||Wood, kaolin, camwood powder|
|Provenance:||Coll. Andrew Turley, Foumban, Cameroon Grassfields 2009|
|Comments:||With an age estimated at circa 1970 to 1980, this mask shows clear signs of use - the underside of the buffalos "muzzle" is displaying the first signs of dry rot and there are deep sweat stains on the left and right insides of the mask. Unfortunately the last 2 cms of each horn is missing and I believe this was the reason for selling the mask (after a replacement had been carved)|
The beautiful carving of this mask brings its features alive, and although I have listed it as "Unspecified Grassfields" it was acquired in Foumban. I was advised it had come from the immediate area, the overtly rounded mouth is stylistically similar to examples I have seen from Oku (not far to the NNW of Foumban in the eastern Grassfields) and the medial ridge appears to be most reflective of the north and eastern Grassfields periphery.
The buffalo was a large game animal whose massive physique recommended association with power. Its adoption as a royal referent animal is manifest in many focal works of the grassfields royal art. Yet its symbolic representation is less developed than the other royal animals; leopard, elephant and serpent. In the hierarchy of these royal animal icons the buffalo appears to occupy a lower rank, which is probably why it is more prevalent in western collections.
While masks and masquerades appear may appear at royal festivals they are usually associated with a variety of mens societies, most of which are ultimately linked to the palace and the king. The societies are closed to outsiders and only those who are authorised to participate in their activities may do so. Each society has its own special house, its own masks, costumes dances, and secret languages. Each acts on behalf of the king.
One of these societies is Kwifo (or Kwifoyn), that acts as a type of unofficial police force, carrying out punishments (Kwifo means "night"). They act as an agent of the kings administration mediating conflict and pronouncing sentence in both civil and criminal cases.
The masks of the society usually perform in groups of eight to thirty, accompanied by drums, xylophone and rattles. When they make public appearances at burial and commemorative death celebrations of a member of the group they are viewed with reverence. They are worn on top of the head of the masker, whose own head is covered with a cloth through which he can see. Masking is complete with a vestment covering the body and with accoutrements that further identify the role of the mask (in the case of the buffalo fig 10-27 in A History of Art in Africa shows a costume of feathers).
The dance sequence is loosely structured but usually includes certain obligatory mask types: a male leader mask followed by a female mask (see Ngoin, lineage mask group) then alternating between male and animal masks and concluding with a second leader mask, usually a high ranking animal representation. But this practise is no longer consistently maintained.
- Expressions of Cameroon Art, The Franklin Collection, Tamara Northern. Rembrandt Press. 1986.
- A History of African Art, Harry. N. Abrams Inc Publisher NY 2001.
- African Masks of the Barbier Mueller Collection. Prestel Verlag Munich. 1998.
- University of Iowa, Art and Life in Africa Project and UIMA. Stanley Collection Database