Bamileke Elephant Mask
Origin: Grasslands, Cameroon
Approx Age: Mid 20th Century
Materials: Cotton, hessian, glass beads
Dimensions cm: 86 long x 61 ear to ear
Ref. Number: 1301
An absolutely stunning and old beaded Bamileke elephant mask of the Kuosi society. The amount of beads used makes this quite heavy, the inside of this shows how much tribal use it has had, please see photos. The rear of the head has had a number of material repairs to keep this as a usable piece, for its age it is in amazing condition, to the bottom of the mask are some metal bells.
Elephant masks comprise cloth panels and hoods woven from plantain fibre over raffia. 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 masked dances. While the mask symbolises an elephant, the face is human. Eyeholes provide visibility, and a nose and mouth with teeth are normally present.
Such 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 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.
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 wine (Brain and Pollock 1971:100-104; Northern 1975:17).
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