Bangwa Troh Night Society Helmet
“These masks are so powerful and dangerous that one cannot wear on ones head, only on the shoulders”.
Origin: Fontem Cameroon
Approx Age: Mid 20th Century
Dimensions cm: 33 tall x 33 wide x 27 depth
Ref. Number: 1772
A very important Bangwa Janus helmet from the Troh night society. Twin faced (Janus) with an encrusted patina, this is more commonly known as an ‘attic’ patina due to many items being stored for long periods of time in the attics of the chiefdoms.
Provenance: Collected by A.A Gbetnkom from the chiefdom of Fontem.
TROH NIGHT SOCIETY
An important Troh Knight Society “Janus” (double-sided) mask, Bangwa, Cameroon, The Troh were once the most important of the Western Bangwa’s secret societies. It was led by nine descendants of the companions of the chief (Fwa), who founded the chieftainship. Before he died, the Fwa divulged the name of his heir to the nine “Great of the Night” and then charged them with enthroning and educating his successor. However, the society, feared by all the Bangwa, also dispensed justice, administered the ordeal poison and executed the guilty. Members of the Troh were supposed to accompany the chief on his nocturnal exhibitions by transforming themselves into leopards, elephants, snakes etc.
Each of the brotherhoods nine leaders had their own mask like this one. These feared masks symbolise the supernatural powers of the chief and the members of the Brotherhood of The Night; “They are so powerful and dangerous that one cannot wear on one head, only on the shoulders”. He who was charged with “wearing” it on his shoulders has to be ritually prepared. One of these masks was also placed at the entrance of the secret enclosure where the Troh meeting was taking place, to forbid access to passers-by.
They were often Janus heads like this one and each face was also partially deformed, some masks having two mouths and four eyes. Others, like this one, were subjected to a kind of splitting in two; the two independent spherical volumes of the cheeks are displaced laterally at mouth height whilst the bonnet is depicted on both sides of the head separated by the hair. A chieftainship mask is tetracephalous and according to the Bangwa, represents the ability to see everywhere at once, into both the future and the past, supernatural world and the world of the living. Due to its often deformed features, one could interpret a Troh mask as an animal head symbolising the metamorphic powers of its owner. But, the Bangwa are unequivocal: it is a human face, that of a terrifying and redoubtable man “of the night”.
Reference: Harter 1986, p.303 and Viviane Baeke; Arts of Africa and Oceana, highlights from the Musée Barbier-Muller, Musée Barbier-Muller & Hazan (EDS.), 2007: p.178.
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