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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Senufo Wooden Kpeliyee Mask
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Senufo Wooden Kpeliyee Mask - PF.3910 (LSO)
Origin: Northern Ivory Coast/Mali
Circa: 1870 BC to 1910 AD
Dimensions: 10.5" (26.7cm) high x 4.375" (11.1cm) wide
Collection: African
Style: Senufo
Medium: Wood

Additional Information: Hong Kong

Location: Great Britain
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This unusually ornate mask was made by the Senufo people, and is an exceptional example of the Kpeliyee form. It is smaller than most examples, and it is very carefully carved, with a very fine face-plate, surrounded by perforations that were originally used to attach a costume. The mask is deep, making the face even smaller, yet perfectly rendered. It is in the traditional form, with closed eyes, an elongated face, a long nose, and bared teeth exposed by thin lips. The superstructures and detailing are both extraordinary. The forehead supports a diadem comprised of 12 pointed eminences, and extra spikes of wood protruding like horns from either side of it. Each temple bears a plate-like eminence with a hatched centre bar. There is a single, then a joined double, then another single spike on each side below this, followed by “legs” which protrude downwards from each side of the chin. The face also has a double beard directly below the chin. The face is marked with three scarifications on each cheek, with four more beneath each eye and the eyebrows rendered as hatched bars. The centre of the forehead is decorated with a sun symbol, a circle emanating twelve rays, arranged in groups of three. The patina is mellow and dark brown.

The Senufo are one of West Africa’s most important groups, and also one of the most productive in terms of artistic output. There are roughly 1.5 million Senufo people, living across the Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso. Senufo society is governed by a council of elders and the Poro society. Both of these institutions are beholden to the complex Senufo religious belief system, which – in short – holds that the earth was created by Koulotiolo, that Katieleo regenerates the world through Poro rituals, and that ancestors and bush spirits (mandeo, ndeo or tugu, depending on the language) are all around, and must be appeased. The Senufo are perhaps best known for their artworks, which reflect their complex social structures and belief system. Secular objects such as beds, stools, chairs, heddle pulleys and canes are all decorated with Senufo iconographs, while metal pieces are used as amulets, and for apotropaic functions. The Poro society commissions many masks for ceremonies including dances (kpeliyee masks), initiations (stylised buffalo masks with antelope horns) and funerals/crises (the “firespitter” Janiform buffalo helmet masks). Very rare horse masks are danced at ceremonies for top-ranking poro members. Other non-Poro forms are worn by healers and highly productive farmers. Sculptures are also known, ranging from miniatures up to life-size anthropomorphic pieces. The most famous variant is the pombilele, elongated figures with solid bases which have become known as rhythm pounders. When not being used to keep the rhythm for dancing, they were stood in the Poro society’s sacred enclosures; their other task was to tamp down the earth atop the graves of prominent Poro members, to ensure that the spirit of the dead is directed to the afterlife rather than returning to haunt the living. When in pairs, they represent the primordial couple, an ideal family that respects its ancestors. Very large sculptures of kasingele (first ancestors) were sometimes commissioned by owners of yasungo – shrines on which offerings are made – and also as foci for dancing. Kasingele sometimes appeared in different form, namely as large geometric bird figures (sejen, or fijen) that are carried by initiates and which symbolise the authority of the Poro elders (katyleeo) over their juniors (poro piibele). Finally, special pieces are carved for members of the sandogo divination society, which has its own paraphernalia to ensure the spiritual welfare of their clientele.

Their masks, however, are probably the most desirable pieces in the Senufo repertoire. This well-used and handled dance-mask would be a proud addition to any serious collection of African art.

- (PF.3910 (LSO))


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