Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Mask (Karanga)

20th century
Burkina Faso, Western and Central Sudan, Yatenga region
Mossi peoples
H. 73 in. (185.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Thomas G. B. Wheelock, 2012
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 350
The imagery found in masks of the Bobo, Bwa, Kurumba, Mossi, and others living in Burkina Faso commonly combine the stylized features of humans, animals, and even insects. Bold geometric shapes enliven the surfaces of these relatively abstract forms. This monumental mask is composed of an oval-shaped face surmounted by a distinctive vertical superstructure extending more than five feet. It is shaped as a flat, narrow rectangle with geometric openwork and incised designs. Antelope's antlers are depicted where the face mask intersects with the vertical extension. They are long, straight and tapered with incised lines on the bottom half. Two rows of triangular nubs bisect the concave face, which has triangular cut-out eyes. The face’s side panels are adorned with three vertical rows of small triangles.

This type of mask is produced exclusively in the northeastern area of Mossi country, in the Yatenga region, where two distinct varieties of antelope reside. This mask, known as a Karanga mask, depicts the large antelope (Hippotragus koba). The Karanga mask is the region's most prominent masquerade.

In Mossi society, the male head of a clan often owns a mask that evokes an important being or animal associated with his family's origin myth. The clan and its totemic animal are profoundly and inextricably linked. They share the same life force, and each clan member's soul is inseparable from the clanic animal. Totemic masks like this one are intended to serve as direct lines of communication between their owners and the founding members of their extended family. Each year the clan applies libations to its masks at a community ritual which occurs in May just before the beginning of the rainy season. Appeals are made for an early and abundant rainy season as well as for the general well-being of the entire clan during the coming year.

Mossi masks, so central to a family's founding as well as to its more recent past, present, and future, also play a prominent role in assuring a smooth transition to the afterlife. During the burial of any male or female clan elder, masks escort the body to the grave and ensure that all burial procedures are properly followed. At the conclusion of the rites, the spirits' union with clan ancestors is joyfully celebrated with dances in which performers imitate the motions of the animals their masks depict.
[William Wright, New York, until 1981]; Thomas G.B. Wheelock, Springfield, TN, 1981–2012

Roy, Christopher D. "Forme et signification des masques Mossi (premier partie)." Arts d'Afrique Noire vol. 48 pp. 9–23, fig. H.T. 1.

Anderson, Alexandra, and Holly Solomon. "Discovering a Culture." In Living With Art. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1988, pp. 116–20, ill. p. 20.

Roy, Christopher D., and Thomas G.B. Wheelock. Land of the Flying Masks: art and culture in Burkina Faso-the Thomas G.B. Wheelock collection. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 2007, fig. 119.

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