Photo of Ms. Welsh-Duquette (1994)
The most famous mask is that of the wild bull.
This is a heavy and massive helmet mask called ESSENIE.
His eyes are glass and give it a special look; real horn frame the top of the mask.
The dancer of Essenié evolves with 4 legs as tilling the soil. His neck, Mobile, allows him to play the position of the head.
The cattle masks repertoire is broad in Bidjogo (Bijago) and varies villages:
The GNOPARA is the bovine female mask, in homage to the “sacred cow”, a fertility image and the DUNG’BE mask represents domestic cattle ….
The historical significance of the ox for the Bidjogo peoples dates back to European encounters of the late 15th century, when Portuguese sailors introduced the animal to the Bissagos Islands in what is current day Guinea Bissau. Its prominent role gained momentum during the 16th and 17th centuries when warring villages stole stock from one another and foreign traders borrowed cattle on credit, all against the backdrop of a thriving slave trade that exacerbated existing social and political tensions. These tensions erupted in the mid-nineteenth century when French sailors refused to repay an important debt: the Bidjogo imprisoned them and France retaliated by attacking the inhabitants of Caravela, burning nearly all of its villages to the ground. Despite a strong resistance by the Bidjogo, the French eventually forced the deposed king to sign a treaty. Later in the century, Portugal colonized the region and in 1974 Guinea Bissau became an independent African republic.
Manratche, or initiation of Bidjogo youth within a hierarchical age-grade system, is one of the key illustrations of cattle’s vital role in the Bissagos Islands historically and today. In cabaro, a mid-level age-group that lasts ten years, male initiates celebrate the wild nature of post-adolescent life by donning a bull mask and imitating the animal’s aggressive behavior. A high infant mortality rate in the region means that young men do not always reach the cabaro age group. In these cases, young women may complete the initiation on their behalves. Initiation masks are crucial to the life-long goal of achieving the status of ancestor because the uninitiated are prohibited from creating objects of religious worship used for entering Ancaredo, an afterworld where the deceased becomes one with the Creator.
This example from the UIMA collections, which has a white triangle at the center of its upper brow area, is called dugn’be or ‘the ox raised in the village’ and represents one of four types of carved wooden bull masks found throughout the Archipelago. It features real cow horns and glass disc eyes in addition to an upwardly pointed tongue the carver added to further suggest the concentration of wild energy captured during performances. Dancers wear this highly naturalistic mask over their heads along with a cylindrical “neck” (carved separately) that is attached by rope and rests on their shoulders. The full costume commonly includes a fiber skirt, belts, bells, and arm guards. In performance, male attendants hold a single rope strung through the nose of the mask to tame its beastly spirit. After their initiation is complete, performers often abandon these masks.