This impressive mask featuring a grotesque human face and a hornbill was made by the Senufo group of the Ivory Coast area. The face is unconventional, being broad across the cheeks, and with a very large, prominent mouth that resembles those of Dan models. The brow is domed, with a pair of hooked horns projecting laterally and upwards. Between these is a standing hornbill bird, known as a Sejen bird. The face is adorned with extra incised decoration in bands and stripes, while the whole mask has a glossy golden patina.
The Senufo live across the Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso, and are one of West Africa’s most artistically important groups. They are governed by a council of elders and the Poro society, and a religious foundation principle stating that ancestors and bush spirits (mandeo) are all around, and must be appeased. This and other beliefs are visible in their artworks.
Masks include kpeliyee (for dances), buffalo (initiations), horse (celebrating Poro elders) and “firespitter” forms, which are worn for crises and funerals. Healers and highly productive farmers are also entitled to wear masks. The most famous sculptures are the “pombibele” rhythm pounders, which represent primordial humanity, and are used to tamp down the earth of prominent Poro members’ graves. Very large kasingele (first ancestor) sculptures were placed in yasungo shrines, and also appeared in the form of birds (sejen) which are carried by initiates, and which symbolise the authority of the Poro elders (katyleeo) over their juniors (poro piibele). Sandogo divination paraphernalia is also known, while secular items are carved in a very specific manner that echo Senufo deities and spirits, thus providing an apotropaic function.
This particular model is endowed with a sejen bird, large versions of which are paraded about by junior members of the Poro society. They are associated with fertility, heritage and various elements of Senufo mythology and social history. While the precise function of this mask is not known, therefore, it is likely to have been associated with some Poro ceremony appealing for fertility.
This is a striking piece of African art.