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A BLACKENED PUNU MASK, IKWARA
A BLACKENED PUNU MASK, IKWARA
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A BLACKENED PUNU MASK, IKWARA

GABON

Details
A BLACKENED PUNU MASK, IKWARA
GABON
Height: 12 in. (30.5 cm.)
Provenance
Distinguished New York Private Collection
Literature
Robbins, Warren and Nooter, Nancy, African Art in American Collections, Survey 1989, Washington, D. C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989, p. 35, #920

Brought to you by

Susan Kloman
Susan Kloman

Lot Essay

Mask of the Night: An extremely rare blackened Punu mask
Blackened Punu masks are extremely rare; unlike the myriad of white Punu masks, less than a handful are known of the black type. The Kreeger Museum in Washington owns a very similar mask formerly in the collection of Helena Rubinstein. A second example, once held by Charles Ratton, is in the collection of the Dapper foundation (#9709). A third was sold by Christie’s (Christie's, Paris, 7 June 2005, lot 228) and a last was formerly in the Vérité collection (Hôtel Drouot, Paris, Collection Vérité, 17-18 June 2006, lot 191).
Different then the white okuyi masks, which performed publicly, these masks were surrounded by secrecy. Known as ikwara (or ikwara-mokulu, which means "the mask of the night"), they were worn during nocturnal processions in the Ngounié region of South Gabon. Ikwara masks acted as upholders of the law. The mask acted as an agent of social control and resolved serious disputes within the community. Ikwara only performed outside the village for a limited audience, the elders and the parties involved in the conflict – unlike okuyi, who performed during the daytime inside the village. Ikwara’s ritual efficiency was due to the fear the mask instilled; a fear made even greater by the fact that the masked spirit only came out of the darkness for a few moments. The dancer would have been covered and hidden under an assembly of cloth, raffia and fibers, reinforcing its supernatural character. Contrasting with the blackened face, the whitened eyelids would have attracted the attention towards the mask’s hypnotic gaze.
Although similar in overall physiognomy as the white okuyi, ikwara masks feature different facial decorations. The scales on the forehead have been replaced with a red vertical line, and white horizontal lines depart from the corners of the mouth towards the sides. A second difference is the coiffure, in the shape of big cylinder, covered with finely cut hair, with two smaller braids at the side. A third difference with okuyi was the color. While white was linked to the world of spirits and ancestors, black was associated with the underworld, sorcery and the malevolent forces that emanated from it. The black pigment was made from the calcination of wood. This coal was then sprayed and mixed to resin and palm oil to obtain a kind of pigment that profoundly penetrated the wood and gave the mask its deep dark color.

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