Item: Punu Mask Specifications: 31.5 x 25.5 x 13 cm. Origin: Southern Gabon (see ethnographic notes below) Description: A fine and expressive mask in original condition with raised lozenge scarifications on a domed forehead, linear scarification to each temple, and a ridged, elevated coiffure. Provenance: Rudner Collection Cape Town, collected by Arthur Rudner prior to 1954 in Gabon. Private collection Cape Town since 1986, Private collection Melbourne since 2002. Medium: Timber Carving, pigment. Condition: Original condition, no restoration, small loss of material to top as a result of wear, overall good.
Context: Punu masks are thought to represent ancestors faces. They are worn during funerals and by a Moukouji initiate who stands on stilts.
The Punu live in independent villages divided into clans and families, and social cohesion is ensured by a society known as moukouji. Its primary role is to regulate community life with regards to social and judicial matters, and mainly it applies itself to the neutralization of evil forces. To this end, officiates of moukoudji utilize a cult kit that includes statuettes, human relics and masks.
Punu masks represent idealized female ancestors' faces. The white color of the mask is genderless; white is a symbol for peace, deities, spirits of the dead, and the afterlife. It is thus the predominating color in funeral celebrations and memorials. Therefore the masks were worn during funerals. They appeared also in the magical rites whose function was to unmask sorcerers. The masks have realistic, mostly white but sometimes black faces with protruding pursed lips, globular protruding eyes incised with a curve, high-domed foreheads, and characteristic rigid high coiffures reflecting the Punu women's hair styles. The masks often have an Oriental expression, but no such influence has been established. Many Punu masks can be recognized by raised diamond-shape scarification marks on the foreheads and temples. The scarification marks on the temples are thought to be associated either with a female ancestor, or with a southern sub-group of the Punu tribe. Black face-masks have exactly the same stylistic characteristics as the white masks, but they are believed to have a judiciary function and help identify sorcerers.
The performances of the masks are nowadays intended primarily to entertain audiences on festive occasions. Only rarely do the masqueraders fulfill a ritual function of officiating at funerals, when they dance as embodiments of the ancestor spirits. In performances the dancers, wearing costumes of raffia or cotton fabric and animal pelts, move with amazing acrobatic agility on stilts up to six and a half feet in height. The Punu also carve standing reliquary figures, which watch over the bones of the deceased. Punu artists carved also amulets and everyday objects showing faces similar to those found on masks. It is thought they were used as prestige objects, during magical ceremonies, or were kept alongside the ancestral bones in a reliquary box.