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“Firespitter” helm mask

The West African Senufo people divides the world into two main entities: nature and culture. If either one of those gains the upper hand, chaos will ensue. That happens, for instance, when there is a death in a village. The Senufo believe the deceased person’s spirit (nature) will wander places he or she frequented often. Only members of the all-male Wabele society have the power to lead the spirit away, and restore order. In order to accomplish this, they have to perform complex rituals (culture) while wearing frightening masks. These are called ‘kponyugo’, literally meaning ‘funeral head’.
  • Date: before 1938 (collected during Ivory Coast expedition 1938-1939)
  • Location: Kovro, Korhogo region, Ivory Coast, Africa
  • Origin: Senufo-Tiembara
  • Other name: Poniugo, Wabele or Wanyugo
  • Collection: Ethnography
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The West African Senufo people divides the world into two main entities: nature and culture. If either one of those gains the upper hand, chaos will ensue.

Who are the Senufo?

The Senufo are a people who live in the north of Ivory Coast, southern Mali and eastern Burkina Faso. They are made up of fifteen smaller groups, all of whom speak a variant of the Senufo language.

What is a fire breather mask?

The fire breather mask (Poniugo, Wabele or Wanyugo mask) represents a mythical being: a combination of powerful animals that refer to the powers of the wilderness. These powers play a magical role in the men’s societies of the Senufo people. Initiates wear these masks during funeral and initiation rites.

Why do the Senufo make masks?

The Senufo believe that the spirit of a dead person continues to haunt places that he or she used to frequent. A wandering spirit can cause harm to the community. This is why members of the Korobla or Wabele men’s societies have to find them and drive them away. The masks help them to do this. The mask wearers dance to invoke the spirits of gods, ancestors and the forest. The spirits possess the mask and the dancer. Then they dance around the dead person, screaming, to drive out the evil spirit.

How did these masks end up in the GUM collection?

Albert Maesen (1915-1992), a researcher into African art, collected this mask on an expedition to Ivory Coast in 1938-1939.

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