Animal Imagery

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

CameroonBamileke artist

Elephant Society mask

Beads, cloth, wood, raffia

H. 187.3 cm (73 3/4")

Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Eleanor Clay Ford Fund for African Art, 77.56

Some associations for social control are created around the identity of a particular animal, whose qualities and attributes provide powerful metaphors for authority and leadership. The Elephant Society, for example, serves as an association for titled warriors and court officials in the Cameroon Grasslands. The society assisted the king in his efforts to reinforce a rigid sociopolitical hierarchy, secured arms during wartime, and levied taxes among villages. Its main purpose, however, was to regulate, maintain, and affirm a class system in which wealth and titles determined one's station in life. Society members ostentatiously donned expensive finery for funerals or biennial assemblies. During these public ceremonies, members wore beaded masks whose shape evoked the elephant's face, trunk, and ears, while the geometric patterns recalled a leopard's pelt. These two animals metaphorically allude to the divine power bestowed upon the ruler and his entourage.