Worn during the tso, or elephant dance, by members of a secret society known as the Kuosi, this elephant mask (mbap mteng) has a long, beaded trunk, and a hat made of red feathers from the tails of gray parrots. These materials display the wealth of the fon (fõ—the õ is nasalized), or Bamileke (bah-MI-lay-kay) king, to his subjects and to recently conquered enemies.
This mask also serves as a reminder of the power of the fon. The embroidered beadwork displays abstract patterns which represent symbols of royal power. These remind the Bamileke people of the king’s divinely ordained position as head of their society and symbolize myths and fables shared by their community.
The Bamileke People
The materials found in this elephant mask and hat express the king’s wealth. The mask itself is composed of a palm leaf fiber textile with glass beads adorning the long cloth panels that make up the mask’s trunk. These beads, imported in limited quantities, were widely used among the Bamileke people as currency. (In fact, the term mbap mteng, used to describe this mask,can be translated as “a thing of money.”) To use beads as decorations, a Bamileke mask-maker first had to secure the sanction of the fon, or king. The stiff, circular ears of the mask wave back and forth during the swift movements of the dance. A human mouth and eyes are stitched onto the mask above the long trunk in padded cloth.
The red feathers forming the hat, taken from tails of the gray parrot, are coveted among the Bamileke people because of their rarity and brilliant red hue. The large number of feathers required to create this hat demonstrates considerable opulence.
During the Kuosi masquerade, the hat and beaded mask were worn with an indigo-dyed cloth, or ndop (in-DAHP) edged with colobus monkey fur and worn with a leopard pelt.
An overhead view of the hat worn with the Bamileke elephant mask.
The Bamileke people recognize the elephant as a creature endowed with strength and intelligence: two qualities of great leadership. For this reason, the elephant has become an important symbol of the fon, or king. The Kuosi, while performing during their masquerades, remind the Bamileke people of the importance of the fon in their daily religious and social lives.
The geometric shapes and designs on this elephant mask suggest a wealth of information to a Bamileke observer. The Bamileke people have created a complex system of visual imagery to express narratives of their history and culture. Over time, many of these symbols have become more and more abstract to the point that a simple diagonal line or circle can represent a complex moral or meaning. Bamileke children are taught, from an early age, to understand the information that the symbols describe, and these images are incorporated into many objects of Bamileke art.
On this mask, a Bamileke viewer would recognize many abstract geometric symbols of the monarchy such as the double gong, the frog (signifying fertility), the spider (an emblem of the earth), the toad, the lizard, the crocodile, and the serpent. The prominent display of these symbols is important to the fon because they remind the Bamileke people that the Kuosi are a powerful force as representatives of his regime.
Listen to curator Roslyn Walker describe this mask.
The Kuosi, originally founded as a secret association of warriors devoted to protecting the fon, or king, has transformed into a society of wealthy, titled men who serve as the fon’s representatives. The primary role of the Kuosi is to maintain the social order in Bamileke society. However, the Kuosi are also responsible for reminding the fon that, even though he is the divinely ordained representative of the ancestors and gods, he is not above reproach.
©Photo SCALA, Florence/Musée du Quai Branly
Members of the elephant society, wearing beaded elephant masks and feathered headdresses, pose for a French missionary photographer in the market place of Bandjoun, Cameroon, 1930.
The masquerade, in many African cultures, is a ceremony which allows people to commune with, learn from, and be entertained by the spirits and ancestors which remain invisible to them in their day-to-day lives. During the masquerade, males of a community (or, in a few rare cases, females), each donning a mask representative of a specific spirit, dance in a way that allows the spirit to inhabit their bodies. These spirits have a number of different personalities. Some are entertaining while others are threatening or solemn. Some are silly while others are serious, and are used to educate children. While wearing the masks, men behave with the affect and demeanor of the mask’s spirit.
Masks come in many different forms in order to represent many different spirits. The three main categories of spirits personified by these masks are:
•Spirits Personified as Humans
Masks which take the form of a human face are used for a variety of reasons. Some are used to conjure the spirits of a community’s cultural heroes, while others are used to provide models of propriety and behavior for young girls, to teach young men about history and manhood at initiation ceremonies, or to represent strangers and foreigners to a community.
•Spirits Personified as “Composite Beings”
Spirits which are composite beings show both human and animal features. These masks imbue their wearers with the positive qualities of both humans and animals. This Bamileke elephant mask, with its elephant-like trunk and ears, and abstracted human mouth, nose and eyes, is an example of a composite being.
•Spirits Personified as Animals
Masks which represent animals are meant to imbue their wearers with the positive attributes of the animal they represented.
Because masks are made of perishable organic materials like wood, fur, and feathers, most masks which have survived date from the nineteenth or twentieth century. When masks are damaged beyond repair, craftsmen create replicas of them, and the spirit of the discarded mask finds a new home in its replacement.
The Bamileke Peoples
The Bamileke Peoples of the Cameroon Grasslands, numbering nearly seven-hundred thousand, are made up of a collection of many small kingdoms each ruled by a fon, or king. To the Bamileke peoples, the fon is the representative of their ancestors and gods, and he is endowed with his political power by their supreme being. Bamileke males join secret societies when they reach adulthood, and they use these secret societies to form social relationships or political partnerships.
1. What aspects of this mask look like an elephant? What qualities of an elephant might the wearer of this mask want to embody?
2. How does this mask change the identity of its wearer? Why might this be important during a ritual?
3. Most of the materials which make up this costume are rare and expensive to the Bamileke people. Why might the Bamileke people value beads and feathers? How does our society assign value to objects? Are there objects that we find valuable which other cultures might not?
4. This elephant mask is an example of a composite mask, possessing human and animal features. What are some examples of human/animal hybrids from myths or legends outside of the Bamileke culture? What qualities are traditionally ascribed to them? Why might hybrid creatures be so common across cultures?
This Helmet mask
from the Kuba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo shares several qualities in common with the Bamileke Elephant mask. For instance, both are made of beads, both take the form of an elephant, and both are worn during important royal masquerades. What are some important differences between them?
2. Masks are often used to represent abstract concepts, emotions, and values. Choose an abstract idea (such as fear, happiness, duty, or wisdom) and consider what animal you could use to represent it. Create your own mask that represents this idea and animal.
3. The abstract patterns covering this mask are meant to stand for important cultural concepts for the Bamileke people. Create your own abstract pattern which could stand in for an important personal story or idea.
4. Research another culture (besides the Bamileke) that uses masks in ceremonies and give a brief presentation on similarities and differences between the two cultures and their use of masks.
5. This radio segment, discussing a facial recognition disorder, describes the importance of the face to one’s identity: http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2010/jun/15/strangers-in-the-mirror/. Listen to the segment and discuss the significance of the face in your day-to-day interactions. How might masks make you see familiar people differently?
| Listen to curator Roslyn Walker describe the Elephant mask.|
Cameroon: Art and Kings. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 2008.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997. Page 152.
Northern, Tamara. The Art of Cameroon. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 1984.
Ross, Doran H., ed. Elephant: The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture. Los Angeles, Calf.: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles, 1992.
Walker, Roslyn A. The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
Books for Students:
Mollel, Tololwa. The King and the Tortoise. Illus. Kathy Blankley. New York: Clarion Books, 1993.
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. A is for Africa. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1993
This page discusses the Bamileke people.
In this collection, you can find more Bamileke art.
This page contains facts about African masquerades.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”