HELMET MASK WEST AFRICA
DATE Early to mid-20th century
MEDIUM Wood, encrustation
DIMENSIONS H x W x D: 82cm x 86cm x 68.50 cm
Senufo horizontal masks are generally composites of carved animal parts--jaws, teeth, ears and horns. Most frequently seen are the muzzle of the crocodile, the tusks of the warthog and the long horns of the antelope or buffalo, as well as smaller representations of chameleons, birds and snakes. These combinations, often of mythic significance, are intended to impress and terrify. The masks are so powerful that contact with their dancers is believed hazardous and, for women, possibly fatal. They are used in rituals connected with agriculture, initiations and funerals. This mask is heavily encrusted with clay and other substances, a feature atypical of Senufo masks but resembling the patina found on some masks of the neighboring Bamana of Mali. It does not show signs of wear, however, and may be the double of a mask made for use by a secret society. In the Poro men's society, a second mask is often commissioned to serve as a replacement for the ritually consecrated one in the event of mishap or theft. The doubles are usually not danced. The task of deciding which identification is most likely is complicated by the lack of clarity in the literature regarding the origins, nomenclature, influences and characteristics of Senufo masks. The term "Senufo" is applied to nearly one million people, residing in three countries, who do not share a common cultural identity. The area has been the site of trading and migrations for hundreds of years. Furthermore, the use of style characteristics to identify the origin of a work of art often fails to account for variations in expression that may satisfy the creators or their patrons. Therefore we can say with assurance only that this mask is in a Senufo style and hope that further study will reveal more precise information.