Spirit Embodiments

By Barbara Thompson
Friends of Usambara Society, Tanzania (formerly Stanford University; University of Iowa)

Burkina FasoCôte d’Ivoire or MaliSenufo peoples
Kponyungo (funeral head mask)
L. 104 cm. (41")
University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.533

Among the most powerful art forms in Africa are those that combine visual references to both human and animal characteristics. The Senufo kponyungo (funeral head mask) includes an elaborate assemblage of carved antelope horns, bush pig tusks, rows of enormous crocodile teeth, and figures of birds and chameleons. Each zoomorphic element refers to a specific social characteristic that the Senufo associated with particular animals. For example, the chameleon—with its ability to change color according to its environment—is an obvious metaphor for transformation and change. Kponyungo masks are performed by the Poro initiation society masquerades. They are "the embodiment of supernatural powers and knowledge of magical formulae, expressed through aggressive forms and symbols. The masquerade incarnates powers that may be directed against lawbreakers and sorcerers and negative spirit forces such as witches, wandering dead, and malevolent bush spirits (Glaze 1981: 207-8).