Mumuye Vabo mask
|Materials:||Wood, red pigment|
|Provenance:||Coll. Andrew Turley, Foumban, Cameroon 2009|
|Comments:||This piece was extremely light and dry when I found it. The apparent dryness of the wood, as well as the deep patina, age cracks and raised grain leads me to date it at circa 1950 to 1960.|
Mumuye wooden images are associated with elders, rainmakers, diviners or other religious specialists and are often guided by protective spirits known as "Va". Many masquerades are known as Vabo. Vabo masks may be carved for a newly trained age-grade which has demonstrated its prowess and is considered worthy of owning the masquerade and keeping its secrets.
Vabo masquerades punish antisocial behaviour and chase away criminals. Individual names given to each mask underscore their aggressive qualities.
Vabo's most important manifestation may occur during mens funerals. During these ceremonies Vabo masqueraders and their attendants gather ceramic vessels from the homes of all the men who have died during the year. Each spherical pot, whose finial is a miniature version of the forest buffalo represented in the mask, has sheltered the soul of the deceased since his death. After carrying the pots to a sacred area, the dancers remove their masks and as humans, rather than as spirits, smash the pottery to release the souls. Women organise similar ceremonies for deceased female elders.
Identified with the forest buffalo the masks have slit cylindrical jaws, a central dividing ridge bisecting the rounded forehead and upward curving horns. There are examples in both Ladislas Segy's Masks of Black Africa 1976 and in African Sculpture Speaks 1975, of which he says "a mask from this tribe, extremely bold, with horns, open jaw, a cross of raised relief on the face and engraved circles for eyes".
Living in eastern Nigeria the mumuye number between 100,000 and 400,000 and populate a region that is bounded by the bend of the Benue River and the Cameroon Border. The Mumuye are farmers, although the soil in this area is not exceptionally fertile. During the dry season from October to March nothing can be grown in the desolate scrub-like land. Millet is the stable crop and is used to make flour and beer. Socially they are divided into small family groups called Dola, which are headed by a council of elders with an elected leader. The Vabong, Va or Vabo secret society (of which there are 7 grades) regulate religious life.
- University of Iowa, Art and Life in Africa Project and UIMA. Stanley Collection Database.
- The Tribal Arts of Africa, J.B. Bacquart. 1998.
- A History of African Art, Harry. N. Abrams Inc Publisher NY 2001.
- Masks of Black Africa. Ladislas Segy. 1976.