Helmet Mask (Kponyugo), 19th–mid–20th century
Côte d'Ivoire; Senufo
H. 12 3/4 in. (32.4 cm), W. 37 in. (94 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.71)
Impressive helmet masks abound in the region spanning the present-day national borders of Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Sculptors carve works intended to incite fear by making visual references to powerful animals, including crocodiles, warthogs, and antelopes. The aggressive imagery artists create in helmet masks like this one contrasts with their more delicate handling of kpeliye'e face masks. Not associated with any single animal, kponyugo helmet masks foster spectators' uncertainty and apprehension. The mask's open jaws and sharp teeth appear ready to devour its prey and thus visually underscore its ferocity. Members of poro and other fraternal associations in the region don composite helmet masks and full-body outfits during funerals and on other occasions to punish human lawbreakers and deter malevolent spirits. Due to the aggressive and combative nature of the helmet masks and their performances, women and children are enjoined to avoid seeing them, a stricture honored due to the costly consequences that transgressions precipitate.