Chamba Bushcow Mask, Nigeria

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Item: Chamba Bushcow MaskSpecifications: 54.5 x 28.5 x 15 cmOriginCameroon, Nigeria Medium: Timber Carving, pigment.  
Context: Straddling the Nigeria/Cameroon borderlands, Chamba matriclans sponsor a masquerade that incorporates both the ancestral dead and aspects of wild nature. This takes place on the occasion of a chief's installation to office, then again for coming to manhood ceremonies that involve circumcision of the young men and lastly at mourning festivals at the death of a prominent individual. Some masks like this example, are colored red in reference to their maleness and possibly associated with the blood of the hunt while others are painted black in reference to dangers of the night and witches and bear female associations. A few examples, such as this red mask, present a composite. The wooden headpiece bears the horns of a wild bushcow, the maw of a crocodile, monster of the water, while the ears and nose and cranial dome take on a human aspect.

The Chamba, whose number today is estimated at 20,000, live south of the Benue River. They are socially divided into small centralized kingdoms, each headed by a king assisted by a council of elders whose powers are regulated by male and female secret societies. The Chamba kings are also assisted by royal women who serve as queens. After circumcision, young boys received an initiation that included the teaching of secrets. Each clan kept the skulls of ancestors, who were responsible for the prosperity and fertility of the lineage. Besides celebrating the ancestors, the vara cult celebrated the tutelary spirit, a personification of the first mala, or the paternal aunt of the chief. At the time of the masked celebration, she appeared in public, as well as at the funerals of members of the lineage; she would dress in the guise of a masked man in a fiber costume. 

The Chamba use a type of mask that symbolizes a bush spirit. The mask has a rounded head with a flattened open mouth and two large backward-sloping horns. From the helmet a muzzle projects forward and horns project backward in a single horizontal plane. The hemispherical dome of the Chamba mask is related to death, for it is said to be like a skull, an ancestral relic taken from the grave of an elder. Other features are related to the wilderness: the open jaws are the jaws of the crocodile, the horns are those of the forest buffalo. The wearer looks through an opening between the two jaws. The mask is linked to dangerous forces. These masks are either female (painted black) or male (painted red). The female mask is often explained as a reminder of their origin. According to the story, a young buffalo/beautiful girl removed its animal skin to take a bath. A passerby saw her, hid the skin, and married the girl. These masks perform at rites of passage: circumcision, chiefs' installations, and diverse funerals. They express the powers and dangers of the bush, where they are stored and from which dancers come, as well as the conjunction of these powers with the spirits of the dead.


Chamba figures are rare and their function uncertain. They are usually covered with an encrusted patina. One type of Chamba figure is thought to be a medium for communication with the spirit world. Small figures were used to cure or protect an individual from snake bites and were attached to iron spikes and inserted into the ground. There is originality in the way the arms are joined to the shoulders: the wide hands separated from the body are sometimes united by a base that cuts through the thighs, the feet reappearing below it. The geometric facial features contribute to an impression of power. Other powerful objects owned by Chamba clan organizations, are linked to their secret knowledge of remedies for illnesses and misfortunes. Among these highly charged works may be ceramics, brass figurines, and musical instruments. All are kept hidden in a bundle or under a large pot. The unseen presence of this sacred material transforms the pot or bundle into an altar, a place of contact between natural and supernatural worlds.