TITLE: Babanki Elephant Crest
TYPE: crest mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Cameroon
ETHNICITY: Babanki
DESCRIPTION: Elephant Crest
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Celebration; Funeral
AGE: 1980
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: glass beads; dried seeds; wicker

The Babanki people of the Cameroon grasslands are closely related to their neighbors, the Bamileke people, and have similar artistic styles. The Babanki worship ancestral spirits and collect their skulls as the patrimony of the lineage. Babanki society is highly stratified by lineage, with certain royal lineages exclusively entitled to wear certain masks.  Lineage masks may represent persons, such as the kam, or animals, like this one, and are used principally at funerals and annual festivals. The elephant mask is reserved for lineages close to royalty, and the wearer of this mask assumes the second most prestigious position after the human mask.

Babanki masks are typically made of carved wood, sometimes with white kaolin clay coloring. This one is assiduously beaded in the style typical among the Bamileke people.

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TITLE: Atoni Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Oceania
COUNTRY: Indonesia
SUBREGION: West Timor
ETHNICITY: Atoni
DESCRIPTION: Handheld mask
MAKER: Unknown
FUNCTION: Status
AGE: 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: fossilized coral
OTHER MATERIALS: N/A

The Atoni people make up the largest ethnic group on the island of Timor, which is politically divided between independent Timor-Leste to the east and Indonesian West Timor. The Atoni use two kinds of masks.  Ancestor masks are used for funerals, adult initiation, war victory celebrations, and other ceremonies commemorating major social events. Handheld masks like this one are used for a quite different purpose. It is believed that these masks were used for a socially acceptable form of stealing when a villager encountered hardship. By covering his face with a mask, the mask takes the blame for the theft and the person wearing it is exonerated. The mask thus helps the villager maintain “face,” as it were.

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TITLE: Kwakwaka’wakw Bear
TYPE: mask
GENERAL REGION: North America
COUNTRY: Canada
SUBREGION: British Columbia
ETHNICITY: Kwakwaka’wakw
DESCRIPTION: Bear Mask
MAKER: Stanley Clifford Hunt, Fort Rupert, B.C.
CEREMONY: Potlatch
AGE: 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: red cedar wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint

A potlatch is a culturally important ceremony among the coastal indigenous Americans of British Columbia, held on many different occasions.  It could be held to celebrate a family member’s change in social status, such as a marriage, birth, death, or initiation into adulthood.  It could also be held to restore a person’s prestige after a loss in dignity, such as falling out of a canoe or making a hunting error.  The ceremony could last for one day or as long as three weeks, depending on the occasion and the wealth of the giver.

A potlatch typically included three important components: a feast, entertainment, and gift giving to the guests.  The entertainment consisted of singing and masked dancing.  The more lavish the gifts, feast, and entertainment, the greater the prestige gained by the giver.  Because masks and costumes were expensive and time-consuming to make, larger and more elaborate masks raised the prestige of the potlatch giver.  The masks themselves represented totemic animals such as the killer whale, raven, beaver, or shark, or else mythical figures and beasts, such as the KomokwaDzunukwa or Bukwus. This mask represents the bear, a spiritually powerful totemic animal for the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

For more on masks of the coastal peoples of western Canada, see Peter MacNair, Robert Joseph & Bruce Grenville, Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1998) and Edward Malin, A World of Faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast Indians (Portland: Timber Press, 1978).

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TITLE: Lega Idimu Mask
TYPE: mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Congo, Democratic Republic of
ETHNICITY: Lega
DESCRIPTION: Idimu Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Bwami Society
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation; Secret Society; Status
AGE: ca. 1990s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin clay

The Lega people of the Democratic Republic of Congo use masks in a very wide variety of ways, but primarily for initiation into adulthood and to confirm status. The Bwami Society exercises authority over many aspects of social and religious life, including initiation.  All Lega masks are therefore Bwami Society masks. Small masks (lukwakongo) are used for identification and worn on the body or are hung on a fence to represent children of the ancestors. Larger masks, such as this idimu (ancestor) mask, are worn on the face or back of the head, and can only be worn by men belonging to the two highest ranks of the Bwami Society (Yananio and Kindi).

For more on Lega masking traditions, see Daniel Biebuyck, Lega Culture: Art, Initiation, and Moral Philosophy among a Central African People (University of California Press, 1973).

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TITLE: Chewa Nyau Mask
TYPE: mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Malawi
ETHNICITY: Chewa
DESCRIPTION: Nyau Society Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Adult Initiation; Funereal; Secret Society; Spirit Invocation; Status
AGE: ca. 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint

The Chewa of Malawi and Zambia are primarily an agricultural people with a matrilineal social structure.  The Nyau Society consists of both male and female initiates, with different rituals and roles ascribed to each.  Masks are worn by male members of the society only. The masquerader is considered to embody the spirit of a dead ancestor, and therefore has immunity for any acts while masked. They are danced at most major life events, including adult initiation, the elevation of a new chief, and funerals.  Masks may be made of wood, feathered nets, or basketry that resembles an animal and fits over the entire body.

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TITLE: Kuba Bwoom
TYPE: crest mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Democratic Republic of Congo
ETHNICITY: Kuba
DESCRIPTION: Bwoom Crest Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Entertainment; Funeral; Status
AGE: 1990s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: copper sheet; cloth; cowrie shells; beads; plant fiber

The Kuba people inhabit the area south of the Kasai River.  Although the Kuba have some two dozen mask types, those still in use today are mostly the three royal masks, whose use is reserved to those given permission by the quasi-divine king (nyimi). These are danced mainly as a form of entertainment reinforcing the status of the royalty and at chiefly funerals.  The adult initiation (mukanda) masks are now rarely used in Kuba society.

What the bwoom mask represents varies among Kuba storytellers. Some refer to it as a younger brother of the king, while others represent it as an outsider or commoner. The copper sheeting is a spiritual substance among many African peoples, and among some represents status or royalty. However, in Kuba society, only gilded metal is reserved for the nyimi.  As a force opposing the other two royal masks, bwoom must be content with copper.  The bwoom dance, unlike other royal dances, is energetic and exuberant.

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TITLE: Bamana N’tomo Mask
TYPE: mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Mali
ETHNICITY: Bamana (Bambara)
DESCRIPTION: N’tomo Society Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Secret Society; Social Control; Status
AGE: Late 20th century
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: brass sheet; nails; cowrie shells; dyed string

The Bamana people, sometimes called Bambara, are one of the largest ethnic groups in Mali. They have six major secret societies of different levels of prestige that conduct adult initiation rituals. Initiates are taught survival skills, social customs, and religious principles. The N’tomo Society originally comprised only uncircumcised boys and teaches the virtues of silence and discipline. For this reason, the N’tomo Society masks tend to have small, closed mouths.

Many Bamana masks also have brass plating, like this one.  Blacksmithing and metallurgy play an important role in the N’tomo Society, so a brass covering greatly increases the status of a mask.

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TITLE: Haida Dogfish
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North America
COUNTRY: Canada
SUBREGION: British Columbia
ETHNICITY: Haida
DESCRIPTION: Dogfish Mask
MAKER: Dalbert Weir
CEREMONY: Potlatch
AGE: 2007
MAIN MATERIAL: cedar wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint

A potlatch is a culturally important ceremony among the coastal indigenous Americans of British Columbia, held on many different occasions.  It could be held to celebrate a family member’s change in social status, such as a marriage, birth, death, or initiation into adulthood.  It could also be held to restore a person’s prestige after a loss in dignity, such as falling out of a canoe or making a hunting error.  The ceremony could last for one day or as long as three weeks, depending on the occasion and the wealth of the giver.

A potlatch typically included three important components: a feast, entertainment, and gift giving to the guests.  The entertainment consisted of singing and masked dancing.  The more lavish the gifts, feast, and entertainment, the greater the prestige gained by the giver.  Because masks and costumes were expensive and time-consuming to make, larger and more elaborate masks raised the prestige of the potlatch giver.  The masks themselves represented totemic animals such as the killer whale, raven, beaver, or shark, or else mythical figures and beasts, such as the KomokwaDzunukwa or Bukwus. This mask represents the dogfish, a small relative of the shark that is an important totem for the Haida people.  The Haida believe that they had a female ancestor who could transform herself into a dogfish to experience the undersea world.

For more on masks of the coastal peoples of western Canada, see Peter MacNair, Robert Joseph & Bruce Grenville, Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1998) and Edward Malin, A World of Faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast Indians (Portland: Timber Press, 1978).

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TITLE: Rom Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: Oceania
COUNTRY: Vanuatu
SUBREGION: Ambrym Island
ETHNICITY: Melanesian (Ni-Vanuatu)
DESCRIPTION: Rom Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Rom Kon
PURPOSE: secret society; social control; spirit invocation; status
AGE: ca. 2000
MAIN MATERIAL: palm spathe
OTHER MATERIALS: bamboo, coconut fiber, hemp, leaves, feathers, pigment

The Rom Kon ceremony is performed by male secret society members to the beat of drums and seed shakers.  The remainder of the costume is composed of dried banana leaves, and each Rom dancer holds a wooden carving that symbolically represents a weapon.  The Rom dancers themselves represent evil spirits who form a wide circle filled by Namba dancers.  The participants sing songs and chant stories as they dance.  Gradually the pace builds until the ceremony reaches a loud and feverish pitch, then ends.

The right to make or wear a sacred mask carries high costs in Ambrym society.  Rom masks invoke the spirit of ancestors (generally the grandfather) and are important agents of social control.  The masks and costumes must be destroyed or disposed of after a dance to ensure the spirit does not haunt the owner.  The dances only occur between July and September, or at special celebrations, such as for the for the appointment of a chief.

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