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HOME : African & Tribal Art : African Masks : Punu-Lumbo Mask
Punu-Lumbo Mask - LSO.567
Origin: Gabon
Circa: 1900 AD to 1940 AD
Dimensions: 11.5" (29.2cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Wood

Location: Great Britain
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The tribes of SW Gabon developed extensive masquerade ceremonies prior to the erosion of traditional ways of life by European forces in the early 20th century. While there were various functions for masked entities within village social architecture, the masquerade tradition found its fullest expression in the execution and use of masks during the funerals of important dignitaries. At these funerals, okuyi masks such as this – that are designed to portray the ideal female – appear, with the idealised male counterpart, as the spirits of deceased ancestors to guide the newly dead to the hereafter. The mask type is known as “the white masks of Ogowe”, as they were usually painted with kaolin and/or white paint to heighten their already serene expressions. Some sources claim that the white paint symbolises the groups’ anti- witchcraft powers. They were usually worn in association with raffia or cloth costumes, and stilts up to about seven feet tall were also worn to heighten their impact. They are technically naturalistic, and echo the aesthetic conventions of feminine hairstyles and general facial proportions.

The mask is immediately identifiable by the presence of geometric motifs on the forehead and by the ears are said to be charged with sexual implications – again, evoking the ideal female. Other ceremonies at which the masks were worn include female initiation, ancestor festivals and dances to commemorate the full moon. There are various regional variants of the mask, which has a distribution across considerable swathes of Gabon, and the time variable is also identifiable in some cases. The current example, judging from the lack of metallic adornment, the shape of the face, the shape of the motif and the hairstyle, would seem to date to the early part of the 20th century. It is probable that it could be tracked to its village of origin if more comparative data were available. The coiffure is exceptionally finely carved in a linear and “feathered” style. It is depicted as double-crowned, with lateral flares of hair protruding down towards the ears with fine, dark bands of “textile”. The face is small and heart- shaped, with bulbous slit eyes, high cheekbones, a domed forehead, a pointed chin, a slender nose and well-carved, pursed, red-painted lips. The frontal motif is a geometric design of nine small diamonds. Each upper cheek is decorated with an upturned rectangle, also comprised of nine smaller rectangles, and the small cupped ears are also painted with flecks of red paint. The eyes are framed with fine, arched eyebrows picked out in black paint (which may also have been applied to the motifs), and the whole mask was evidently once covered in kaolin, which is now mostly visible in the depressed areas and the sides of elevated features. The rear of the mask, the rim and the apices are all worn, while the face itself demonstrates use wear and a matt patina. It has two large piercings, level with the eyes, and what appear to be indigenous repairs with iron nails at the extreme tips of each lateral plait of hair. All elevated parts of the face are worn and rubbed, further confirming that the piece is absolutely authentic. The carving is truly masterful – the expression is well captured, the mood perfectly encapsulated. This is workmanship of the highest order. - (LSO.567)


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