African masks may, as a general rule be divided into several categories; playful or frightening, abstract or realistic, they may represent humans or animals, or combinations of the two, they may be for initiations, fertility or for entertainment. The range of uses, styles, materials and artistry is mind-boggling even within a single tribe let alone all of West Africa or the entire continent.
There is, however, a grand overarching distinction which defines two types of masks:
Those used in public entertainments and ceremonies versus sacred masks. Public masks are of the village while sacred masks are of the bush.
In the Baule tribe of the Ivory Coast the men’s sacred mask is called Bo nun Amuin (Gods in the bush), it never uses cloth, which is a product of the village, but always raffia, a product of the bush. The public version is called Mblo. The Mblo usually has some type of cloth about it.
The sacred masks (nicknamed by westerners as the “firespitters“) are kept in a sanctuary in the forest away from the village, and only enter the village for the actual dance. The sacred mask at rest may never be seen by women, children or uninitiated men, while public masks, on the other hand, remain in the village and may be seen by anyone. Public masks represent real animals and people, that is to say the natural world, while sacred masks represent imaginary animals and people or the supernatural world. (sacred masks do not represent the spirits of animals in the bush, but the spirit of the bush itself).
The performance of the sacred mask is a wild and frightening affair which tests the village and the courage of the men. I quote from Susan Vogel’s article, Baule: African Art Western Eyes:
“These strong mask’s dances…test the villagers self-control and their ability to withstand fear. The audience is continually provoked and threatened and the faint-hearted break down and run away in disgrace…A mask may suddenly strike a young man or adolescent for having talked about the mask with a women. Being in the mask’s way , or otherwise annoying them will also provoke a blow…In some measure, then, the mask appearance is a contest of wills among men, a challenge.”
The Bo nun Amuin of the Baule highlights the distinction between village and bush, between sacred and profane. But the Bo nun Amuin also demonstrates the intertwined relation between bush and village for it is only in the village that the Bo nun Amuin is performed. The human and the non-human overlap in that it is ultimately men who portray (become) these spirits.
Recent masks are smaller, fragil, full of fussy details,unrelated to underlying sculptural forms and often have more than one piece of wood. The Baule find these beautiful.
Older masks are of one piece of wood, simple bold aggressive with organic matter such as sacrificial blood and eggs…these are more feared than admired by the Baule.
The gallery possesses a rare piece that has yet to be definitively identified. The trader who sold it to us called it a Baule Firespitter, but it doesn’t quite fit the genre. Though the head shows elements of the Bo nun Amuin with stylized crocadile maw and buffalo horns, the body is absolutely bizzare. It is made of wattle reeds, earth, fur perhaps skin and other possible unidentified things. A tiny chip of red coral is situated at the base of one horn, a minute piece of turquoise at the base of the other. Perhaps the African trader who identified it as a Baule Firespitter found the piece frightening enough to lable it as the old feared Bo nun Amuin. Our piece does indeed seem to be old. But it does not fit the Firespitter form, and I have never seen a head like this on such a body.
It’s been an adventure trying to identify this artifact. I appeal to the experts or anyone with real insight…what is it that we have here? Is it related to the famed Bo nun Amuin, or Firespitter? Or is it simply a one of a kind piece which I suspect more every day in which I find nothing like it anywhere.
I will reveal what we discover about this enigmatic piece in future blogs.
Much of the information in this post came from Susan Mullin Vogel’s wonderful article in African Arts (Vol. 30 Autumn 1997) entitled Baule: African Art Western Eyes.