Late Bronze Age, Late Cypriot II, circa 1450–1200 B.C.
Exact provenance unknown; similar figures found in Cyprus
Unidentified Baga or Nalu artist, late 19th or early 20th century
Wood, metal, pigment
This mask combines human features and those of a crocodile or shark.
Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties visitor responses to “What does your activism look like?”
Elvis Mask for Nyau Society
Unidentified Chewa artist, circa 1977
Central or Southern region, Malawi
Wood, paint, fiber, cloth
Although most of the cultures represented in African Innovations have changed dramatically since the works were first created, genres such as masquerade persist in many regions, where they adapt to an even more interconnected world. This make for the Nyau society, a Chewa institution that governs the spiritual realm of death and the ancestors, depicts Elvis Presley.
Historically, all Chewa men belonged to the secret Nyau society. The society’s masks represent the spirits of the deceased, but they may also represent wild bush spirits or caricature personalities from the wider community. Outsiders—including Swahili slave traders, British officials, the Virgin Mary, and other iconic foreigners such as Elvis Presley—have been considered representative of antisocial traits and undesirable values.
Kuosi Society Elephant Mask
Unidentified Bamileke artist, early 20th century
Grassfields region, Cameroon
Cloth, beads, raffia, fiber
Elephants, leopards, and buffalo are often associated with political power in the highly stratified kingdoms of the Cameroon grasslands. Beadwork is also associated with royalty and high rank, making this Bamileke beaded elephant mask a potent symbol of power. The right to own and wear elephant masks is carefully controlled; only members of royal families, court officials, wealthy title holders and important warriors are admitted to the Kuosi masking society that uses them. The society assists the king, or fon, in his role as preserver and enforcer of a rigid sociopolitical hierarchy. These masks are worn at funerals, Kuosi celebrations, and other important events.
Unidentified Yoruba artist, late 19th or early 20th century
Gelede masks, such as this one, are worn by male Yoruba dancers at festivals honoring the woman of the community, living and dead, especially the powerful Great Mothers, including both the elderly women of the community and the ancestors of Yoruba society. The gelede performances entertain and educate, and document elements of everyday life, such as the woman’s head tie in this example. Through their movements, gelede dancers express Yoruba ideals of male and female behavior.
Divination Tapper (Iroke Ifá)
Unidentified Yoruba artist, 18th century (?)
Owo, Ondo state, Nigeria
Komo Society Mask
Unidentified Bamana artist, late 19th or early 20th century
Segou, Koulikouro, or Sikasso region, Mali
Wood, metal, antelope horns, porcupine quills, organic materials
Soul Container (Eraminho)
Unidentified Bijago artist, late 19th or early 20th century
Orango Island, Bijagos Island, Guinea-Bissau
Wood, earth, crushed plant materials, copper alloy chain, organic materials
Eraminho are repositories for the souls of the dead. According to Bijago beliefs, a person’s soul lives on after the body, but only as long as it is remembered by the person’s family. Thus it is necessary to create a repository for the soul and provide it with sacrifices.