Mambila Chameleon Headdress Mask

  • Tribe: Mambila
  • Origin: Cameroon & Nigeria
  • Approx Age: Early 20C
  • Materials: Wood
  • Dimensions cm: 33 Long x 17 Wide
  • Ref. Number: 0153

This Mambila Chameleon Headdress Mask comes from our own private collection bought from a collector  / gallery owner in the Netherlands; it is absolutely adorable and very rare. The collector we bought it from informed us that this piece was documented in a book from the previous Netherlands collector he bought it from and said he would pass it on if he could find it but so far that has not come around.

It does have old evidence of insect erosion, some pigment remains around the eyes, teeth and on the back in the crevices of the criss cross design. Unfortunately the tail has broken off at some time in its life but doesn’t take away any of the character of this truly fascinating early 20th century piece.

Related image
Storehouse for Mambila Suaga Society property, Northern Cameroon. Photograph 1936 (A History of Art in Africa)


Mambila art centres upon an association called suaga. It is primarily concerned with justice and supernatural cleansing within the community. The Mambila produced a considerable number of figures that are characterized by a heart-shaped face; pigments are often applied later. Mambila figures embody ancestors who, according to their beliefs, are responsible for the clan’s wealth. The figures appear with bent legs and typical enlarged head outlined in wooden pegs. Mambila also make highly stylized animal masks. Masks and statues were kept hidden from the eyes of women in a net hung on the inside of a hut that was on stilts; it was guarded by the head of the family. The front wall of the hut was decorated with two figures, male on the right and female on the left, crowned by a rainbow and framed by the sun and the moon. Dancers celebrating the beginning and end of the agricultural cycle are led by a tribesman wearing a cephalomorphic helmet mask. He is often followed by a retinue of assistants wearing secondary masks in the shape or stylized animal heads, usually dog’s or crow’s. In general, women are excluded from these masquerades, both as actors and as spectators. Women dressed in rags and vegetation presents their own version of the masquerade at a different time and place. Reference :

Photograph taken from the book African Masks The Barbier-Murller Collection


The Mambila inhabit an area south of the Adamaua Mountains that straddles the border between Cameroon and Nigeria. They use various types of mask during celebrations called suaga, which take place twice a year, at the beginning and the end of the agricultural cycle. In general women are excluded from these masquerades, both as actors and as spectators. Mambila works have a unique, un-mistakable style. The formal design of the kiavia mask corresponds to the faces of Mambila carved figures. This particular style of mask would have a heart shaped formed face, concave depression from which cylindrical eyes and unusually long curved nose emerges. With a lower edge to an oval mouth whose lips have rows of vertical notches and the classic paint  colouring of red, white and blackish brown typical of the Mambila mask.

Photograph taken from the book African Masks – The Barbier-Mueller Collection


The most important masks used at Mambila suaga celebrations are called suaga due ( Big suaga) and suaga bor ( Dog suaga) investigations have not yet been able to precisely clarifythe difference between the two types. In some Mambila villages the suaga due masqueraders are distinguished by costumes with additional feather adornment;  in other places, the designation suaga due is applied to every mask. Moreover, the masks have individual names which derive not from their appearance but from the magic substance which lends the masks their power. This has lead to a conclusion that for the suaga bor masks substances might be used whose preparation requires the ritual sacrifice of dogs. The suaga mask has zoomorphic features which are difficult to associate with any one species of animal. The holes on the sides of the mask ( headdress) were used to attach a voluminous costume that would hide the maskers body.

The Mambila or Mambilla people of Nigeria live on the Mambila plateau (in ‘Sardauna’ Local government area of Taraba State in Nigeria). A small fraction of Mambila migrants left the Mambila Plateau for the Ndom Plain (also known as the Tikar Plain) on the Cameroon side of the international border as well as in a couple of small villages, such as New Namba, further north towards the towns of Gashaka and Banyo. The preferred ethnonym is spelt Mambila in Cameroon and Mambila in Nigeria. “Norr” is also used (the word for person in Nigerian dialects of Mambilla)(Bami-Yuno, ms).


Image result for mambilla plateau


The Mambila people of Nigeria and Cameroon regard themselves as a group with a common identity. They are the denizens of the Mambila Region, and have been in their homeland for upwards of 4,000 years (Zeitlyn & Connell, 2003). The Mambila and Mambiloid peoples represent the Bantu who stayed home following the Great Bantu Split of pre-historic times. In Nigerian dialects they refer to themselves as ‘Norr’ (the people) while in Cameroon there is a collective noun ‘Ba’ that is used in the unmarked sense to refer to the Mambila, and also to refer to Mambila in Cameroon on the Ndom or northern Tikarr plain (see below) contrastively with neighbouring Mambilla on the highlands of the Mambila plateau who can be referred to as “Bo ba bo”. The populations of different Mambila villages speak different dialects of Mambila or closely related Mambiloid languages. They also share a set of closely related cultural practices, in particular a conjunction of masquerade and oath-taking called “suu”, “shua”, “sua” or “shuaga”. In the Somie (Ndibal) dialect this is phonetically written as [ʃwaɣa]. See discussion in “Sua in Somie” cited below.

Reference : Wikipedia