African Art- Cameroon Grasslands

African art stands out from most other art forms found around the world. African art is so unique because of the unusual supplies that are used to create the art such as beads, shells, and wood. The use of different carvings and different statues created also benefit to African art’s distinctive style. However, every region of Africa is known for their own different style of art. For example, the Cameroon Grasslands have their own particular style of art.

The Cameroon Grasslands are known for various forms of art, but they are most popularly known for their masks created for masquerades. The Bamileke, the southwest cultural group of the Grasslands, are known for creating elephant masks for their community masquerades. 2 These elephant masks are used for celebratory reasons, but also hold religious and political importance to the Bamileke region. The elephant masks of the Cameroon Grasslands are most popularly used during the Bamileke elephant masquerades. 3 These elephant masquerades are also known as ‘mbap mteng. ‘

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The dance is associated with the symbolism of the royal power and the rule of the kingdom. The elephant masks are most commonly worn by men, and are sometimes linked to secret societies. 6 For example, in the Bamileke community, these elephant masks are linked to “mkeen. “7 This is Bamileke’s secret society and the elephant mask is the main liturgical garment for a member of the mkeen during the royal and ritual dance of the elephant. 8 The instruments used to create the music performed during the elephant masquerades are mostly sacred drums and gongs. The beat of the music is consisted of measured steps, which suggests the way of how an elephant would normally walk. 9

This particular elephant mask is a fitted helmet mask and supposed to be worn completely over the dancer’s head. Some elephant masks include a head crest which would be located on top on the mask. Since this elephant mask has a beaded covering on top on the mask, it suggests that there is no attachment or head crest to go with this mask. 10 When the mask in on, there are two hanging panels. One panel located in the front and the other located in the back. These panels help conceal almost the entire body of the dancer. The dancers wear long dark robes under the mask to cover the remaining parts of their body.

The front panel of the mask is to represent the elephant trunk. 12 This front panel also has two large stiff circles attached it to located at the top of the mask. These circles represent the ears of the elephant. These ears are able to ‘flap’ around when the dancer is moving to give the natural qualities of the elephant. 13 However, even though the mask is to represent the natural qualities of an elephant, it also has various qualities of a human as well. For example, the eyes and mouth on the mask is that of a human rather than an elephant.

These human qualities are placed there so that the dancer can visibly see what he is doing but to also accurately represent the king in human form. 14 This elephant mask made by the Bamileke people is made up of glass beads, raffia splints, and a variation of dyed cloth. 15 The mask itself is visually stimulating with the use of various colors and designs. The geometric design found on the elephant mask is to represent a leopard’s pelt. 16 This mask is to combine the speed of the leopard and the might of an elephant. 17 The mask is very detailed with many beads making it very attractive and interesting to look at.

Having it be made in such a creative way, it will keep audiences interested in the elephant mask dance even when the dancers are not moving. The Bamileke tribe is governed by a village chief who is supported by a council of elders. In the past, the chief was believed to have supernatural powers that allowed him to turn into an animal such as an elephant, buffalo, or leopard. 18 The Bamileke chief tends to represent all of these animals but he most popularly represents the elephant. The elephant is most commonly represented because it is a rare animal of Africa. 9 The elephant is represented through the masks worn by the dancers during the elephant masquerade.

The elephant is a great importance to the Bamileke society because the elephant is seen as one of the most ‘commanding’ land creatures in African culture. 20 This being said, these elephant masks are appropriate symbols of the leaders of the Bamileke communities since the leaders are seen as the most commanding in the community. These elephant masks represent kingship, wealth, and mysterious powers of the king. 21 These powers are believed to be given to the king by a god. 2 The elephant masks are generally worn by the powerful members of the Bamileke society, which include members of royalty, wealthy title holders, and ranking warriors. 23 Or they are worn by the members of the mkeen to entertain the powerful members who are being represented in the dance. Along with representing the king, these elephant masks hold religious importance by being worn during funerary rituals of the Bamileke society.

In the African culture, they believe that at time of death, the body dies but the spirit and soul live on and continue to surround the living. 5 When a member of the Bamileke society dies, the mourning process lasts a few days. 26 When the mourning process is over, there is a masquerade to celebrate the life of the deceased one. They most commonly honor either the king of the community, or a member of the mkeen. At this masquerade, the dancers will wear the elephant masks. The dancers wear the masks during this masquerade so that they are protected from an attack of the dead man’s spirit. 27 But it is to be believed that at the end of the celebration, the spirit of the deceased member is to have reached the spirit world. 28

The elephant masks of the Bamileke people are similar to the masks worn during the ‘gelede’ of the Yoruba peoples. 29 The Bamileke elephant masks are to represent the king and men of the society, where the gelede masks are to represent the women of the Yoruba society. The gelede festivals are staged by the men of the community to honor the deceased and living women of Yoruba. These festivals are held annually and focus the celebration more towards the elderly women of the community. 30 The Yoruba people believe that the powers of a woman can be comparable to gods, spirits, and the ancestors which is why this celebration takes place.

The gelede mask is wooden and is detailed with bright colors and patterned textiles. The wooden mask is carved with the naturalistic features of a woman’s face. The purpose of the gelede ceremony is to entertain community members and remind them the importance of their mother or the women figures in their lives. 32 The gelede masks and dance are to inspire the women of the Yoruba society to use their ‘extraordinary’ powers for the well-being of the community. 33 The gelede performance tries to shape the Yoruba society in a constructive way.

Like the elephant masks, these gelede masks may be used during a funerary ritual. 34 Again, at the end of the mourning process, Yoruba would celebrate the life of the deceased member by celebrating and wearing the festive masks. Though these two masks have their differences in physical features, they hold the same purpose for celebratory and religious purposes. Even though all African art is noted for some unique characteristic, the artwork of the Cameroon Grasslands and their use of elephant masks stand out the most.

Though most of them today are used as display for African art, their original and main purposes are for celebratory, political, and religious purposes. There are even similar masks to the elephant one like that of the Yoruba people and their gelede mask. Most African masks serve more than one purpose and this has been made clear by researching the Bamileke’s elephant mask. The elephant mask holds a great importance to the Bamileke society and will continue to be used in celebratory and religious ceremonies.