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Elephant mask
Date: Mid-20th century
Medium: Cloth, glass beads, plant fiber, dyes
Dimensions: H x W x D: 128.5 x 49.8 x 40.5 cm (50 9/16 x 19 5/8 x 15 15/16 in.)
Credit Line: Gift of Diane and Sandy Besser, Santa Fe, NM
Geography: Grassfields region, Cameroon
Object Number: 2001-13-1
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Object is not currently on exhibit

Worn as part of an ensemble by a masquerader representing and performing an elephant, masks of this type are among the best known, most flamboyant works of art from Africa. They are intricate in detail, and in their many different configurations demonstrate the African artists' delight in variation and innovation. Many of them have headdresses like the mask under examination. The quadruped depicts a leopard, recognizable by the gapping open mouth and the long tail. The rectangles created by the beadwork on the animal's body allude to leopard spots. The leopard figure compares favorably to conventionalized larger leopard figures topping many Bamileke elephant masks and prestige headdresses dating back to the turn of the 20th century. Since the headdress may be older than the cloth part of the mask, it seems likely that Bamileke artists combined the headdress and cloth part, a practice of recycling and re-using that has been observed in the Cameroon Grassfields. The recent fabric on the leopard's neck and feet, dating from the 1960s or 1970s, may well have been attached later on. This elephant mask compares favorably with other elephant masks created between ca. 1920 and ca. 1950. Its color scheme is restrained. Colors, design, and density of beading were the result of aesthetic preferences as well as of the supply of beads. Thus, early masks tend to have a more limited palette. Elephant masks belong to men's prestige societies, which exist in many Bamileke kingdoms. During funerary manifestations and large royal displays, the elephant masqueraders emerge in single file from a large house in the palace and enter the dancing field and market place in front of it. An orchestra of drums and iron double gongs accompanies their vigorous dance. The masqueraders wear tunics made from ndop, a cloth reserved for royalty and wealthy men, which also lines this mask. They sport exquisite bodices with bead embroidery in patterns resembling the ones on the panels of the masks. A beaded, wide belt may recall the mask's color scheme and design. They hold horsetail whisks with beaded handles, may wear heavy ivory bracelets, and anklets with rattles. In Bandjoun, precious and rare leopard pelts adorn their backs. The bells and rattles attached to their costumes and ankles produce a rhythmic sound and the spectators cheer on the dancers. Such performances seem to recreate the elemental power of the elephant, one of the reasons, why the elephant has been associated with leadership in Grassfields thought. Elephants are perceived as alter egos of the kings. The leopard, often combined with elephant masks in the form of figures on the headdresses also alludes to royalty.

Cloth and bead helmet mask with two flat round disks ("ears") attached on either side. Two long panels in front and back allude to an elephant's trunk. Lips, large round eyes, a straight nose and mouth, delineated by beads and red cloth, create facial features, giving the mask an anthropomorphic character. A disk-like round headdress supports a freestanding quadruped, created from wood, cloth and plant fiber. Dark blue imported cloth trimmed with bright red trade cloth, supports the bead embroidery. Glass beads, no more than 2 mm in diameter of European manufacture are applied in the so-called lazy stitch, i.e. several beads are strung on a thread and the strand is then attached to the cloth after approximately every 6th to 10th bead. The beads are light blue, yellow, and white, with a few red beads attached as highlights. The design consists of triangles and lozenges. The cloth becomes an integral part of the design through alternating beaded and plain non-beaded areas. In addition, this mask has areas with tiny strands of beads, such as the back of the headpiece and the backside of the circular ears. The inside of the mask is lined with blue and white indigo dyed indigenous cotton cloth (ndop). Red jersey knit covers the neck and feet of the small quadruped on top of the headdress. Burlap, can be seen underneath this much more recent material. The mask shows signs of extensive wear.

Hamill Gallery, Boston, 1999

Diane and Sandy Besser, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1999 to 2001

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