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Punu Okuyi mask

Punu Okuyi mask
Punu Okuyi maskPunu Okuyi maskPunu Okuyi maskPunu Okuyi mask
Tribe: Punu
Country: Gabon
Ritual: Funerals
Name: Okuyi
Materials: Wood, paint, kaolin
Provenance: Coll. Andrew Turley, Southern Cameroon 2009
Comments: With an age estimated at circa 1970-80 the mask has damage, repairs and wear appropriate to its age.

This mask used by various tribes in the Ogowe River area represent a female guardian spirit in the form of an exceptionally beautiful female. Usually it has a face painted white with kaolin and scarification marks carved in relief. Black masks, such as this one are relatively poorly understood, but have the same stylistic characteristics as the white masks and are believed to have a judiciary function.

Black masks illustrated in Bacquart's, The Tribal Arts of Africa, the Sothebys sale New York, 14/11/1995, lot 58 (see image 3, illustration 3rd from left bottom row above) and at the Galerie J. Germain, Montreal (image 4 above) tend to have incised, rather than raised scarification patterns. These patterns sit horizontally from slit eyes to ears and lips to outer mask edges. The black mask shown at Fig. 195 in Segy's Masks of Black Africa has no scarification pattern at all.

The black mask above from Galerie J. Germain (image 4 above which sold for US$10,423 at Christies Lot 89 Sale 5568 in Jun 2009) and the last two masks illustrated in the left bottom row of image 3 above - from Musee Dapper and a Sotheby's sale - all have stylized coiffures in a "cap-like" or "hat-like" form. This mask has this prominent central cap-like form and is flanked with the more typical lateral tresses.

In typical white masks, the coiffure, features a prominent sagittal lobe flanked by two lateral tresses, is a classic style of dressing women's hair practiced throughout the region during the nineteenth century. Lozenge cicatrization markings were incised on the forehead and temples of Punu women as a form of aesthetic embellishment and a sign of sensuality. Masks often emphasize a subdivision of the motif into nine units. Nine is considered a mystically powerful number and a catalyst in the healing process and the prominence of the number nine, makes reference to the mystical powers commanded by the dancer.

Sub-groups of the Punu carve their masks with stylistic variations - the Njabi group from the Upper Lola River carved masks with a double coiffure and a square chin, while the Tsangui roup from the Republic of Congo used linear scarifications.

The stylized rendering of the eyes, represented as closed slits, evoke a sense of serenity while at the same time affording the wearer an unobstructed view of the performance arena he must negotiate.

Masked dances are commissioned by community leaders to mark important occasions - the initiation of adolescent girls, funerary rites, ancestor cults, to commemorate the memory of an important member of the community, to celebrate the return or the visit of an honored individual, or to mark a development that will enhance the community's well-being. The dance can be performed on stilts of up to three meters in height; dancers must train from childhood to master the difficult and demanding choreography.

Image 3 above is from "The White Masks of South Gabon" - Louis Perrois and Charlotte Grand-Dufa showing masks with scarified cheeks and foreheads. (Left to right and top to bottom)


  1. Ladislas Segy, Masks of Black Africa
  2. Jean Baptiste Bacquart, The Tribal Arts of Africa
  3. Rand African Art
  4. Sotheby's New York, 14/11/1995, lot 58
  5. Galerie J. Germain, Montreal