Bamileke Elephant Masks
The act and art of wearing masks has been practiced for a very long time in history and the art has been prevalent amongst all nations and tribes in the African setting as well as in most European nations. Wearing a mask can offer protection, create a sense of humor and status or scare someone and these are the three main purposes of wearing masks in the African setting. The act of wearing masks has characterized most celebrations and ceremonies in history. These are often used to inspire and teach and celebrate most African traditional celebrations as well as ceremonies that denote events such as the good harvest periods. The use of masks in most traditional celebrations and activities not only shows their cultural importance but it also dictates the life of the people that share in the use of the masks. The Bamileke people are one of the most notable African users of masks. This paper highlights the use of masks by the Bamileke people as well as the significance of masks in their traditions and history. In this particular paper the Bamileke people are highlighted. They constitute of tribes form the grasslands of Cameroon such as the Ngombale, magaka, ngomba, ngwe, yemba- just to mention but a few.
Cameroon is largely composed of two regions, the northern part that is Islamized and the savannahs on the western part of the nation. The western part of the savannahs in Cameroon is mainly occupied by the Bamileke people. These people constitute grouped tribes that share a common ancestry and tribal practices. The community constitutes of approximately 100000 people. The Bamileke are very popular for their act of resisting slavery. The tribe’s members bravely engaged in costly protest against slavery through the exercise of rebelliousness and suicide (Visona, 2003). The Bamileke people had an artistic expertise that was specifically focused on the production of artistic and ceremonial items that were basically used in the ceremonial attendances that were mainly attended by the royal families and related entities. The Bamileke tribes and their people are greatly known for the expertise in the production of artistic paraphernalia that is was used in many of their ceremonial activities. The kingdom of the Bamileke people constituted of 90 sub-divisions and the king was said to have had transformational powers that would enable him to take the shape of animals that were sacred and important to their society such as the elephant and the leopard (Anonymous, 2010).
The elephants are one of the grand wild animals that feature in the big five category. They are extremely large in size and command a lot of grandeur. Through the elephants the African people create a great deal of symbolism in their use of masks. The use of elephant masks or masks that typify elephants is a common thing amongst African societies and it depicts the status of the person that wears the mask. The Bamileke- a group of tribes in the western grasslands of Cameroon are a greatly known for the use of elephant masks in their ceremonies and day to day life. The fact that elephants are respected and rare; means that only a few people within the African society were allowed to wear any form of head gear or masks that represent the elephant(Anonymous, 2010). Therefore, in the African society, only men of great respect and a higher status were allowed to wear elephant masks. The African societies that made use of these elephant masks were indeed either aides to the chiefs or royal emissaries within the chieftain. The use of the elephant mask is said to have developed from the Bamileke people that lived in the grasslands within Cameroon. The Bamileke or “elephant people” were categorized according to their attainment of wealth and they made up three categories of the elephant people. These so called elephant societies that originated from the Bamileke people spread through natural dispersal in various regions of Africa. These elephant masks were a symbol of wealth and kingship, and as such they were only worn by individuals that belonged to the Kuosi society, which acted as a regulatory body to most happenings in the African set up. The Kuosi society constituted of individuals from the royal society and warriors from the kingdom of Bandjoun which was located to the west of Cameroon.
Slave trade greatly thrived in the Cameroonian region in the ancient periods, and the payment for slaves was done via the use of leopard pelt which allowed access to the higher ranks of society for trade. However, the elephant masks dominated much of the trade at the moment (these were masks that were designed to resemble the features of an elephant). The earlier elephant masks used in slave trade had beads of a Venetian origin and these formed a medium of exchange for trade in slaves. The beads that were placed on the elephant’s head gear conferred a status of symbol and thus they were considered as a source of value and monetary status was attached to them. These elephant masks are made of panels of cloth and hoods which are weaved from plantain fiber and natural raffia. The background created by these fibers offer a perfect place to stitch beads of different colors and thus forming beautiful elephant gears. The gear’s parts are designed in a manner that depicts the parts of an elephant. The features create a resemblance of the elephant. The gear has two hanging panels that conceal the back and front of the person wearing the mask as well as features that represent the elephant’s ears and trunk. The frontal panel of the mask forms the trunk and the side circles representing the ears form flaps that gyrate as the person wearing the mask dances in a rhythmical manner. Elephant masks symbolize the animal, but the masks actually have provisions for breathing ad vision when worn by humans (Anonymous, 2006). The masks are worn alongside robes that woven with dark fiber. These could also use tie and dyed cloth that I white in color. The wearers of the mask also have to dye their legs with camwood which is bright red in color. The performers may also wear vests that are beaded and belts that are made form the leopard pelt. The maskers dance in a ceremonial manner whilst in these costumes, to the sounds of the gong and drums.
In the dance the performers wave poles having blue and white beads with trimmed horse hair. The ceremony is characterized by high ranking people such as princesses and chiefs and the dancers do a lot of whistling, the dances are characterizes by periodic waving of the horse tails carried by the dancers and the cheering of the crowds and at the end of the festivities the favorite performers are awarded according to their performance. These masks are not similar because the design is varied and different in nature and the backgrounds are characterized by red or dark blue backgrounds. The masks have varying degrees of complexity and thus offer a variety that is so rich in design. These masks were used by the Kuosi society to depict its great affluence through the display of cowrie shells and beads. The formation of the pattern and colors on the masks depicted the society’s political as well as cosmic functions in society. The ceremonies in which the elephant mask was used had a lot of symbolism and great significance to the Kuosi society. The colors used as well as materials used in designing the elephant mask were all significant. For example the black color on the gear was used to denote the dead and the white color was used to denote the living. Therefore, the gear depicted the relationship between the ancestors and the living world.
The white color on the elephant head gear did not only denote symbolize the ancestors of the society, but it also was an indication of the potency that lied in traditional cures. These masks also greatly featured the red color which symbolizes life, the royal institution of leadership as well as the female gender in society. The Bamileke people included geometric symbolism through the use of triangles on the head gear that were used to depict the leopard’s spots. The leopard was an equally important symbol for the Bamileke people as it was for the elephant. Both the elephant and the leopard were symbols of mastery that were used by the Bamileke people in their entire art top represent their influence, affluence and power. The elephant masks were common in gatherings where the Kuosi society had to display its power and significance in the Bandjuon kingdom. These gears were extensively used during ceremonies such as burials and any other public gatherings. The society of the Kuosi was some sort of a royal family that controlled all courts and influenced the enforcement of law in the whole Bamileke kingdom (Mbaku, 2005).
One other important artistic production by the Bamileke people is the red feathered head dress. This was at times a constituent part of the elephant mask which was most common in funeral activities and ceremonies as well as other related ceremonies. The head dress was composed of various quills that were gathered from various wild birds mostly hunted for their game meat and feathers. The head dress made of feathers was an important component in the ceremonies that were performed by the groups of secret societies within the kingdom. As such it is a prestigious item associated with what the Cameroonians refer to as the “ndop”. Basically, this denotes a ritual cloth that has an incorporation of symbolic patterns on a background with a certain designated color. The secret societies within the Bamileke use this item in initiation and burial ceremonies within the community. These head dresses did not have a common color or designation, because the feathers were sought from various types of birds such as the toucan, parrots or any other form of colorful and beautiful birds.
The head dress consisted of a basket like structure that held the palm leaf stems that would be inserted in to it (Anonymous, 2006). The palms that were inserted on to the head gear had to be tipped with a feather from any of the birds whose feathers were used in designing the head gear. However, it has to be noted that the selected feathers had to be red in color. Through empirical observations are has been noted that the physical appearance of the head gear actually varied in a very significant manner. The variations empirically observed on these head gears were based on the kind of feather that was used as well as the size of the feather. The arrangement of the feathers was also one significant differentiation element in the design and making of the Cameroonian head dress.
The Bamileke head crest is also one of the most famous and artistic piece from the Bamileke people of the Cameroonian grasslands. The head crest is currently held in a museum and it depicts earlier forms of similar head crests that might have been held by these people for the sake of communal use in symbolic rituals. The head crest is made up of simple materials such as porcelain, glass, beads and hand woven fabrics. The head crest is composed of a frame that is constituted of reeds, and the surface has decorations of beads made out of glass. The head crest is actually categorized among the face masks that were use in the performance of traditional dances, and as such it may be categorized as one of the Kuosi secret society masks (Turner, 1996).
The three highlighted masquerades and other forms of masquerades used by the Kuosi family of the Bamileke people represent the artistic nature of this society as well as the society’s spiritual and social nature. A large part of the masks and artistic artifacts recovered from the Kuosi people were used by the Kuosi society which was made of community’s warriors, land holders and royal family members. The Kuosi association was mandate with the maintenance of political hierarchy and order. The masks used mostly symbolized the elephant and the leopard, which are powerful symbols that were used to represent the leadership as well as the kingdom of the Bamileke people (Mbaku, 2005). These masks were a symbolism for elements of majesty and wealth. The element of majesty in these artifacts is reinforced through the use of components that represented great monetary value at the moment such as cowrie shells and beads that were both in use during the early forms of trade. The society is a clear depiction of an organized and intelligent society. The society is also famous for its placement of great symbolism on artistic features.
The artistic artifacts from the Bamileke people, and more so the secret society of the Kuosi people show that their society may have been highly experienced in the making of iron tools that used in the fabrication of wooden masks and the component paraphernalia. Therefore, these elements portray not only the artistic nature of the society, but also its advancement at the time technologically.
Anonymous, (2010), Bamileke elephant masks: Cameroon, retrieved on 6th December, 2010 from http://www.randafricanart.com/Bamileke_elephant_mask_cowrie_shells.html
Anonymous, (2006), Bamileke beaded head crest: Leopard, Cameroon, retrieved on 6th December, 2010 http://www.africadirect.com/productsdesc.php?ID=28223
Mbaku, M. K. (2005), Culture and customs of Cameroon, Greenwood Publishing Group.
Turner, J. (1996), the dictionary of art, Volume 3, Grove's Dictionaries
Visona, B. M. (2003), a history of art in Africa, Pearson/Prentice Hall publishers