Mask (Mukudj)

Date: 19th–20th century

Geography: Gabon, Ngounié River region

Culture: Punu peoples

Medium: Wood, pigment, kaolin

Dimensions: H. 13 1/2 x W. 7 1/2 x D. 6 1/2 in. (34.3 x 19.1 x 16.5 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: Purchase, Louis V. Bell Fund, and The Fred and Rita Richman Foundation and James Ross Gifts, 2000

Accession Number: 2000.177


In the Punu communities of southern Gabon, mukudj masks are considered portraits of an exceptionally beautiful female member. The coiffure, featuring a prominent sagittal lobe flanked by two lateral tresses, is a classic style of dressing women's hair practiced throughout the region during the nineteenth century. Lozenge cicatrization markings were incised on the forehead and temples of Punu women as a form of aesthetic embellishment and a sign of sensuality. Classic mukudj masks often emphasize a subdivision of the motif into nine units, which is significant in light of the fact that, among the Punu, nine is considered a mystically powerful number and a catalyst in the healing process. In mukudj mask representations, the prominence of the number nine, as well as the red band that accentuates the hairline, make reference to the mystical powers commanded by the dancer. It is those powers that are believed to provide him with the talent and protection necessary to perform. The stylized rendering of the eyes, represented as closed slits, evokes a meditative serenity while at the same time affording the wearer an unobstructed view of the performance arena he must negotiate. The application of white kaolin to the surface of the masks is a reference to spiritual transcendence. The white clay is a sacred material linked to the parallel ancestral realm of existence and also a cosmetic associated with idealized beauty.

Mukudj dances are commissioned by community leaders to mark important occasions—to commemorate the memory of an important member of the community, to celebrate the return or the visit of an honored individual, or to mark a development that will enhance the community's well-being. The mukudj dance is performed on stilts of up to three meters in height; dancers must train from childhood to master the difficult and demanding choreography. During official celebrations, a mukudj dancer towers above his audience and executes acrobatic feats that demand agility, strength, and an acute sense of equilibrium. Because of the extraordinary nature of the performance, dancers are perceived as exceptional individuals who draw upon mystical powers to accomplish such a feat. The thrilling spectacle of mukudj performances alternates between passages of lyrical grace and explosive power.

Mukudj performances are appreciated as the most aesthetically appealing and exciting form of expression in Punu culture and consequently have become a national icon of Gabon. Mukudj masks are displayed as proud insignia of Punu cultural identity in domestic contexts in the capital, Libreville, as well as in rural villages of the remote interior.