This mask, according to an exhibition catalogue, "gives fear a face."(26) Despite the presence of a small elegant female figure (see detail, below), the mask discourages one from getting too close. The sharp animal horns and tusks of various sizes pointing in all directions, the prominent zigzag teeth, and the overall encrusted surface give the mask a menacing appearance. The projecting glass eyes and reflective mirrors also add to its visual power.
This mask originated among Senufo peoples living in close proximity to the Bamana, who use helmet masks with horrific animal imagery. Among the Bamana, such encrusted masks with long, horizontal muzzles are worn by high-ranking members of the male-only Komo association that is traditionally responsible for maintaining social, spiritual, and economic harmony in Bamana communities. A society of blacksmiths, its high-ranking members (komotiga) practice divination and are empowered to function as judges.(27) The wooden komo mask is covered with all manner of animal and vegetable materials that make it powerful.
Senufo's kponyungo helmet masks are owned by the most senior members of the male-only Poro society that functions as a system of government, education, and economic control. Like the Bamana's Komo, Poro has a spiritual function to serve as a medium for contact with the realm of deities and ancestors. Its associated helmet masks present a daggerlike image of concentrated aggression through animal imagery, including a long horizontal muzzle with bared teeth, antelope horns, warthog tusks, and fully realized chameleons and birds. The surface of the kponyungo is painted rather than encrusted with sacrificial material. Instead of a human figure crowning the mask, there is a cup to hold potent magical ingredients.(28)
The Dallas komo mask combines traits of both Senufo and Bamana helmet masks (29) and derives its power from the accumulated sacrificial offerings that created the crusty surface instead of from the magical ingredients in a cup. The imported mirrors and base from a wine glass that form the eyes confirm the piece as a contemporary object.
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 55, pp. 168-169.
26. Roberts, Allen F. Animals in African Art: From the Familiar to the Marvelous. New York: Museum for African Art; Munich: Prestel, 1995. p. 95, cat. 94.
27. McNaughton, Patrick. Secret Sculptures of Komo: Art and Power in Bamana Initiation and Associations. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1979.
McNaughton, in Colleyn, Jean-Paul, ed. Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali. New York: Museum for African Art; Zurich: Museum Rietberg; Ghent, Belgium: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 2003. pp. 175-183.
28. Glaze, Anita J. Art and Death in a Senufo Village. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. pp. 257, 259.
Boyer, Alain-Michel, Patrick Girard, and Marceau Rivière. Arts premiers de Côte d’Ivoire. Saint-Maur, France: Sepia, 1997. p. 24, plate 4.
29.Till Förester, personal communication, March 2008.