Bamileke Elephant Mask
This Bamileke beaded elephant mask has a lavish use of colourful beads displaying the wealth of the members of the Kuosi society.
Origin: Balin Chiefdom, Cameroon.
Approx Age: 1950-60s
Materials: woven cloth, glass beads
Dimensions cm: 116 long x 64 ear-ear
Ref. Number: 1633
Bamileke elephant mask used by the Kuosi society. A beautiful mask that is totally beaded which renders it quite heavy. This was collected from the chiefdom of Balin. This is a nice old mask with a huge amount of tribal usage, material balls on top of the head (purely decorational value) and a lovely beaded design using baguette beads and with a circular motif.
Bamileke elephant masks are often worn with robes of dark woven fibre covered with small fibre knobs or indigo and white tie-dyed “royal” cloth. The robes contrast greatly with the maskers’ bright red legs, dyed with cam-wood. Costumes also include beaded vests/shirts with broad belts and leopard pelts attached at the back. Since a chief owns or controls the masking society, both leopards and elephants are apt metaphors for symbolic impersonation.
Elephant masks comprise cloth panels and hoods woven from plantain fibre over raffia or Ndop cloth. On this background, multicoloured beads are stitched in geometric patterns. The basic form depicts salient features of the elephant—a long trunk and large ears. The hood fits tightly over the masker’s head, and two hanging panels, one behind and one in front, partially conceal the body. The front panel is the elephant trunk, and the two large, stiff circles hinged to either side of the head are its ears, which flap as the masker dances. While the mask symbolises an elephant, the face is human. Eyeholes provide visibility, and a nose and mouth with teeth are normally present.
Maskers dance barefoot in these colourful costumes to a drum and gong, moving slowly as they wave poles with blue and white beaded tips trimmed with horsehair. They whistle “mysteriously and tunelessly,” brandishing spears and horsetails. Maskers are later joined by chiefs and princesses, parading by an elaborate tent in which high-ranking men sit to observe. A masker hurls his horsetail to the chief, the crowd cheers, and the celebration continues with various feats performed primarily by younger maskers. When the festivities end, the favourites are rewarded with kola nuts and palm wine (Brain and Pollock 1971:100-104; Northern 1975:17).
The beauty of these masks is largely in their colourful beaded patterns. Dark blue, black or red backgrounds provide foundations for basic geometric designs laid out in white, creating a striking contrast, the masks show varying degrees of order and complexity. Masks may be sparsely or densely beaded.
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