Collection Online

Elephant Society Mask, late 19th century

Culture: Bamileke Peoples, Africa, Cameroon (Grasslands)

Medium: Raffia, canvas embroidered with beads

Object: 62 3/4 x 18 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (159.4 x 47 x 21 cm)
Base: 62 1/2 x 10 1/8 x 10 in. (158.8 x 25.7 x 25.4 cm)

Credit Line: Gift of the Director's Council

Object Number: 97.2.1

On View

Pace Primitives, New York, New York, 1997

The Bamileke people live in a mountainous area of western Cameroon divided into several kingdoms, each ruled by a fon, or king. The elephant, esteemed for its power and bravery, is the revered symbol of chiefs and kings, and variously represents their authority, wealth, and military strength. Bamileke kings are thought to possess the supernatural power of transmutation by which they may take on the form of the elephant at will to perform legendary deeds. Just as an actual elephant can easily move a giant tree blocking its way, for example, so too is the king thought to be able to overcome great obstacles as the leader of his people. Members of the secret, all-male Elephant Mask Society, known as the Kuosi, wear extravagantly beaded masks when dancing during important ceremonies and the funerals of fellow society members. Historically, the ritual dance was also performed after victorious battles to display Bamileke power and intimidate defeated enemies.

 

The Elephant Society Mask is made of a strong, palm-derived fiber called raffia, and is festooned with white, maroon, and turquoise glass beads. This mask would have been worn as a part of a more elaborate costume while a drum and gong played and its wearer circled slowly on bare feet, letting the ears of the mask flap around him. Outfitted with a circular hat of bright red parrot feathers, robes of indigo and white ndop cloth trimmed with highly prized colobus monkey fur, beaded fly whisks, rattle anklets, and occasionally a leopard skin worn over the back, the dancer would have presented a spectacular and imposing sight to onlookers. The mask features a trunk; stiff, round ears characteristic of the African elephant; and a stylized human face covered in beads arrayed in geometric patterns that produce the effect of a whirling kaleidoscope of color as the dance progresses1. Knotted balls of dark canvas cloth on the top of the head represent human hair, accentuating a metaphorical association of the dancer’s human-elephant hybrid persona while wearing the mask.

 

1. Fred Johnson and Susan Rapchak. African Art in the Ball State University Museum of Art: Materials for the Classroom (Muncie, IN: Ball State University Museum of Art, 1998): 30.