The Art Museum’s mask comes from the grasslands region of western Cameroon, an ecologically diverse area that is home to many ethnic groups. Numerous independent chiefdoms exist there, varying in population size from a few hundred to many thousand. Within such chiefdoms, which are governed by a king and a class of male titleholders, masks play an important regulatory and symbolic role. Masks such as this one were owned by large or important lineages. Their ownership was licensed by the chief and the regulatory society for a fee, and the owner was under obligation to maintain them.
Lineage masks were worn primarily on two occasions: at the chief’s annual harvest festival and at an adult male’s death ceremony. Drums, xylophones, and rattles accompanied such observances. The full cheeks on this mask refer to the chief’s prosperity and well-being, and to privilege in general.
This mask's elaborate openwork superstructure depicts a pair of spiders, a common icon in the art of African grassland peoples. A nocturnal creature that lives underground and emerges after sunset, the spider inhabits both the realms of the living and of the dead. Communication between the living and their wise and powerful ancestors depends on the spider, which travels between the two worlds and functions as a mediator.