Janus Helmet Mask (Wanyugo)

Date: 19th–mid-20th century

Geography: Côte d'Ivoire, Région des Savanes, Ladiokaha

Culture: Senufo peoples

Medium: Wood, pigment

Dimensions: H. 13 1/2 x W. 10 1/8 x D. 25 7/16 in. (34.3 x 25.7 x 64.7 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1964

Accession Number: 1978.412.311


During funerals and other ceremonies in Senufo towns located in the area defined today by the national borders of Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Mali, members of the all-male poro association and healers' organizations wear zoomorphic helmet masks of this type. The impressive masks incorporate multiple animal references to create a powerful composition. The groups that own the prestigious masks perform with them to combat malevolence unleashed by humans with capacities to manage great natural and metaphysical energies.

This mask's virulent attributes, for example, its open jaws and sharp teeth like the crocodile's and tusks like the warthog's, are but a few of the elements that allude to the aggressive character of a masquerade designed to deter nefarious pursuits. The dominant motifs of wanyugo helmet masks are the tusks that sprout from the top and sides of the two snouts and the pointed teeth. The sculptor of this mask contrasts the sharp angles of the many teeth and tusks with the more supple forms of a pair of chameleons at the top of the helmet. The chameleons, lizards known for their abilities to change their skin color, grip a small bowl designed to contain potent substances, a motif that suggests transformational powers and esoteric knowledge associated with the mask and its performance.

The double-sided construction of the wanyugo helmet adds to its effectiveness in confronting harmful forces. The fantastical faces can anticipate and combat evil from any vantage point and in doing so amplify the mask's potency. Senufo artists combine a dynamic mask with dance movements and musical accompaniment that present audiences with powerful and complex images designed to protect the community from harm.