VUVI Face Mask

Muhunzu, Gabon
Late 19th cent.

Wood, natural pigments, raffia, hide

63 cm



Maud & René Garcia, Paris
Pace Primitive, New York, acquired circa 1980

Distinguished Private Collection, California
Anderson Family Collection, Connecticut, acquired 2003

Pace Primitive, New York (inv.54-4393)
Cole Harrell, New York, acquired from the above, 2016
Anna Demina Collection, Milan


These masks serve as agents through which ancestral spirits reappear during funeral ceremonies and solemn communal gatherings. The color white equates with death, and the simple blackened facial features are graphic signs, representing esoteric knowledge handed down from the ancestors. The ovoid face has strongly arched eyebrows often extending from the bridge of the nose to the edge of the mask.

The eyebrows may demarcate a heart-shaped area with narrow eye slits and a slightly open, thin-lipped mouth. Each mask apparently had a special name related to the spirit it embodied. During nocturnal performances announced by drum music, the leader of the rite would intone a specific song that reminded the onlookers of the individual traits of the spirit represented by the masqueraders.

The Vuvi cast metal bells with cephalomorphic handles, while their carvers decorated the ebanza cult house with doors and posts. They were covered with white pigments, leaving the raised geometric and figurative motifs plain.