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Elephant Mask, Kuosi Society, Bamileke Peoples, Cameroon

The Fang reliquary guardian figure, a wooden sculpture, protected sacred items like bones of important ancestors and potent substances. The figure, with its powerful musculature and calm demeanor, symbolizes strength and respect. It was also used as a puppet during young men's initiations to educate them about their ancestors.

Elephant (Aka) Mask, Kuosi Society, Bamileke Peoples, Grassfields region of Cameroon, 20th century, cloth, beads, raffia, fiber, 146.7 x 52.1 x 29.2 cm (Brooklyn Museum) Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Voicover] We're in the Brooklyn Museum looking at this magnificent beaded mask. - [Voiceover] This mask is covered in beads. It was danced by the members of the Elephant Society, the Kuosi Society, in the Bamileke kingdom of Cameroon. - [Voiceover] Cameroon is a country in central Africa but we're seeing this object hermetically sealed within plexiglass, in a museum, completely divorced from the way that it would have been used and understood. in its original context. - [Voiceover] This was a masquerade, which involved not just a mask, but a costume, performers musicians and attendants to bring this mask to life to do what it was really supposed to do in terms of honoring the king and bringing about social harmony. - [Voiceover] So we should not be seeing it frozen, hung as if it was just a piece of cloth. - [Voiceover] This object was obviously collected and has now a second life in this museum space. It's very hard for us to recontextualize it's original use but we know from photographs that the Bamileke Society would wear these with a red feather head dress, a leopard skin pelt and a full body costume. The leopard and the elephant were symbols of rule and powerful symbols for the Fon. The Fon was a divine king who could transform into the elephant and the leopard was thought to be an animal that could transform into a human so we have that connection between divine rule and the essence of these powerful animals. - [Voiceover] So the Bamileke that would have worn this would have been court officials, titleholders, warriors people that held themselves great power and in their association with the leopard and with the elephant would have expressed the power of the king, and in a sense the political stability of that hierarchical order. - [Voiceover] The Bamileke king, the Fon, allowed this society and only this one to dance the elephant mask and to wear leopard skin. They were entrusted with these symbols of authority and power. The main form in this beaded piece is the isosceles triangle, which relates to the patterning on the body of the leopard. - [Voiceover] Highly stylized though as the entire mask is it's dazzling, and it has a kind of optical quality that is full of energy and dynamism. - [Voiceover] And imagine when it's worn and danced and performed, it would be incredibly dynamic with all of these various materials and colors and shapes all brought together to suggest the power of that king. - [Voiceover] And in Cameroon today the Bamileke still perform this ritual, now annually but instead of warriors performing it these are powerful members of the society. (jazzy piano music)