H x W x D: 170 x 67.9 x 1.9 cm (66 15/16 x 26 3/4 x 3/4 in.)
Grassfields region, Cameroon
Early 20th century
Worn as part of an ensemble by a masquerader representing and performing an elephant, masks of this type are among the best known, most flamboyant works of art from Africa. They are intricate in detail, and in their many different configurations demonstrate the African artists' delight in variation and innovation. Media, beadwork and restrained color scheme suggests that this mask dates to the beginning of the 20th century.
Elephant masks belong to men's prestige societies, which exist in many Bamileke kingdoms. During funerary manifestations and large royal displays, the elephant masqueraders emerge in single file from a large house in the palace and enter the dancing field and market place in front of it. An orchestra of drums and iron double gongs accompanies their vigorous dance. The masqueraders wear tunics made from ndop, a cloth reserved for royalty and wealthy men, which also lines this mask. They sport exquisite bodices with bead embroidery in patterns resembling the ones on the panels of the masks. A beaded, wide belt may recall the mask's color scheme and design. They hold horsetail whisks with beaded handles, may wear heavy ivory bracelets, and anklets with rattles. In Bandjoun, precious and rare leopard pelts adorn their backs. The bells and rattles attached to their costumes and ankles produce a rhythmic sound and the spectators cheer on the dancers. Such performances seem to recreate the elemental power of the elephant, one of the reasons, why the elephant has been associated with leadership in Grassfields thought. Elephants are perceived as alter egos of the kings.
Cloth and bead helmet mask with two flat round disks ("ears") attached on either side. Two long panels in front and back allude to an elephant's trunk. Lips, large round eyes, a straight nose and mouth, delineated by beads and cloth, create facial features, giving the mask an anthropomorphic character. Dark blue trade cloth from Europe forms the headpiece, which covers the masquerader's face. Red felt-like material, also imported from Europe, forms the front and the back panels. Due to age it has faded to an orange hue. The back of the long panels and the inside of the headpiece are lined with indigenous cloth woven from plant fibers--either raffia or banana. Glass beads, no more than 2 mm in diameter of European manufacture are applied to the cloth in the so-called lazy stitch, i.e. several beads are strung on a thread and the strand is then attached to the cloth after approximately every 3rd to 10th bead. The mask's color scheme is restrained. The reddish and dark blue cloth contrasts with black, blue, darker and lighter blue, white, brownish, and green beads, creating triangles, lozenges, half circles and a radiating design on the round ears. The mask shows signs of wear.
de Monbrison, Paris
Hubert Goldet, Paris, -- to 2001
Artful Animals, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., July 1, 2009-July 25, 2010