Art of Africa

poro mask

Poro Society mask (Kponyungo), 1970
Carved by Zana Soro
Ivory Coast (Senufo)
14 1/2 x 40 inches
Gift of Anita J. Glaze 1986-31-1

The Poro Society is a complex initiation system responsible for the educational and spiritual formation of the young and the upholding of law and moral order in Senufo village life. The Kponyungo helmet mask is primarily a funerary mask that serves both as an honorary tribute to deceased Poro elders and as an instrument of protection from malevolent sorcery and spirits. The distinctive long horns of this zoomorphic mask are emblematic of ethnic identity and its exclusive use by Senufo farmer groups.

Loaded with symbolic and magical weaponry, Kponyungo is also a "combat" masquerade designed for supernatural warfare. The masquerade ensemble—mask, costume attachment, performance design—is the fearsome manifestation of contesting powers and strong medicine. Charged by a secret ritual and by medicine bundles and altars hidden in a sacred grove, the mask destroys the snares laid by sorcerers. The medicine cup on top of the mask alludes to its magical and healing powers.

The Kponyungo mask is intended to conjure up a "monster," its aggressive imagery in keeping with the reputed ability of sorcerers to transform themselves into ferocious beasts. In this example, the open, devouring jaws of a hyena, the lance-sharp horns of larger antelopes, and the dagger-like warthog tusks on top of the snout are all suggestive of effective defensive weaponry. This mask is crowned at the back of the head by a bird with a chameleon in its beak, signifying the first two creatures on earth. In Senufo literature and art, these two icons have many associations. The hornbill bird is linked in myth to agricultural productivity and the eternal duality of the male and female couple. The chameleon is an important spirit messenger, carrying the affairs of diviners and their clients to the gods. The animal's ability to change color is associated with transformational and mediating powers, making it an ideal symbol for display by diviners and healers.

Text by Anita J. Glaze, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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