Death

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Cameroon; Kom peoples

Mask

Wood, copper

H. 39.7 cm (15 5/8")

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1990.601

When a king or important chief passes away, society dies a symbolic death as well. An interregnum follows that is of critical importance. Interregnum is a rite of passage through which society is moved from loss to "rebirth" with the investiture of a legitimate successor. Frequently, the death of a ruler is marked by solemn spectacles in which masks perform to honor and remember the deceased. Among some Cameroon Grasslands kingdoms, the most important occasions for the appearance of masks are formal funerals called "cry dies" of adult males including chiefs and kings. The funeral "is the final summing up of a man's existence in which all that was his due in life is recalled and celebrated in the form of public spectacle" (Northern 1979a: 2; 1979b). This particular mask in the Kom-Oku style possesses a headdress that represents a chief’s knitted cotton cap.

A mask society waiting for its dance during a death ceremony in Mboh Oku, Northwest Province of Cameroon. Photo by Hans-Joachim Koloss.