Kpelie Mask

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Kpelie Mask, Senufo, Ivory Coast

H: 32 cm (12,6″)

It is a delicately carved mask combining both human and animal features. Although it was always owned and worn by a man, Kpelie represented the concept of feminine beauty and fertility. The unique features which characterize the Kpelie mask include elongated flanges radiating from the bottom part of the mask, which are a reference to the hornbill bird. The horns on the mask refer to the ram, an important sacrificial animal. The nodules on the forehead represent palm nuts as well as vulvas; they are flanked by cicatrization marks that symbolize the twins born to the primordial couple. The Kpelie mask was used at initiation in the societies for boys, adolescents, and adults, at funeral rituals designed to lead the spirit into the land of the dead, and at harvest festivals to thank the ancestors for a good crop.

Kpelie- whether in carved wood or cast bronze copper alloy– are usually oval in shape with arched
crescent shaped eyebrows over narrow slit eyes. The small mouth opens below a slender nose.

Scarification marks add to presentation of what is considered beautiful to the Senufo. On either side of the temples are semicircular and rectangular shapes that represent the stylized coiffure worn by Senufo mothers; the center shapes at the side representing ears. Animal horns – bull, ram or antelope – represent male attributes of the masquerade. There are often two appendages on either side of the chin, “legs” that connect the spirit to the earth. Most important are the figures on the head, which represent an ancestor closely connected with the society’s origin. The figures worn depend on the caste group to which the individuals belong. However, much of the original significance of these emblems is no longer valid. Wassing has provided the following meanings: a comb, the symbol of agriculture, a bird- especially the hornbill inked with the smiths, a bundle of palm nuts, symbol of wood carvers, and small human figures connected with merchants. The hornbill- one of the first creatures on earth – is an important symbol for the Senufo and appears on many of their carvings.

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