This is a Okuyi mask, made by the Punu people of Congo and Gabon.
Representing the spirit of perfect female beauty, the face is oval, with a small chin, closed lips and horizontally pierced, globular eyes under a tri-lobate coiffure. The features are highlighted with black pigment, making dramatic contrast against the kaolin white of the face, which was intended to represent reincarnation. The mask was originally worn as part of the Mwiri tradition, a major male-only initiation process designed to commemorate major events such as funerals. The Okuyi performance (also known as Mukudia) is one of the major Mwiri rites, involving stilt walkers and spectacular acrobatic displays.
The mask is said to be inspired by the most beautiful woman in the community. Her status is signified by the ornate coiffure, her modesty by the seemingly downcast eyes. The mask is made magical via its decoration with kaolin, which is collected from riverbeds that were believed to be close to the ancestral realm that the white faces in turn signified to onlookers. The delicacy of the features led early ethnographers such as Dr Hans Himmelheber into believing that they represented Chinese women. Okuyi went on to act as a source of inspiration to many European artists, including Picasso, Derain, Matisse and Modigliani.
Original Okuyi are rare on the market. I only had a handful the last 20 years.
Height 34cm; 47cm on custom-made metal stand (included)
Lit.: see ‘Punu' by Louis Perrois & Charlotte Grand-Dufay, ill. 22, 23, 47. for related masks.
B/w photo: Masquerader from the Punu people of Gabon | ©Michel Renaudeau / Michel Huet