This mask is a particularly early example of the Punu Mwo spirit maiden type used all over Gabon. These masks are all depicted in the same way: white faces (achieved with the application of kaolin) with pursed lips (often pigmented, traces of which are found here), diamond scarification to the forehead indicative of a particular tribe and a high, twin-peaked coiffure which became popular among women in the latter half of the 19th century – often requiring tall headrests to keep the hairdo intact overnight. They are often described as having ‘an Asian expression’ although no direct link has been proven.
What’s interesting here is that although these masks all depict women (usually representing a female ancestor), they were exclusively worn by men in their ritual context. Often they were kept locked away, given their enormous ritual power, and only brought out at initiation or funeral services where the dancers would embody the grace and elegance of their female ancestors – often on stilts. Full moons would be an ideal time to perform these ceremonies, as on clear nights the shadows cast by the stilted and masked dancers would be particularly impressive.
It is a misconception that African ‘masks’ were worn on the face, as we might expect. Often, as is the case here, they were work on the top of the head with the remainder of the body covered by plant materials such as raffia. Sometimes the head would be bent so that the ‘face’ of the mask would point directly to the individuals gathered for the ceremony, but often they would point directly upward to the sky.
These masks are particularly popular with collectors, and with an estimate of £100-200 this mask provides a rare opportunity to secure an excellent example at The Asian & African Works of Art Auction on Thursday 30 January.
The next Asian Works of Art Auction takes place on 23 April; entries are invited for this international auction. For a complimentary valuation please contact specialist Magda Ketterer on 0141 810 2880 or firstname.lastname@example.org.