Elephant Mask, 1900–1950
Cotton cloth, flannel, glass beads, raffia cloth, indigo dye, and cane (?)
Overall: 55 1/2 × 24 7/8 × 7 3/4 in. (140.9 × 63.2 × 19.7 cm) Overall (including stand): 56 3/4 × 24 7/8 × 7 3/4 in. (144.1 × 63.2 × 19.7 cm)
Museum purchase funded by The Brown Foundation, Inc. and the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Writing About Masks
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Describe rites and ceremonies of different cultures and the use of masks.
Connecting to the Work of Art
We do not know the maker of this mask or whether several artists, such as tailors and bead embroiderers, worked in collaboration to create such an elaborate object. We do know beaded masks were commissioned by higher ranking members of the society and involved considerable time and skill to create.
The distinctive beaded elephant mask sculptures of the Bamileke are superb examples of the use of beads to convey wealth, rank, and prestige. The mask depicts an anthropomorphic elephant, considered a royal animal and a symbol of power and strength. It refers to the power of a king as a hunter, because it was a sought after game, and to his power and force as a warrior because of its strength. The elephant continues to be an important image for the Bamileke, even though the animal itself has not been seen in Cameroon since the beginning of the 20th century.
This mask is one of the most famous of its type. Unusual in its muter coloration, it depicts a human face with padded eyes, nose, and lips, which stand out in relief. The dazzling ears are beaded with subtly different designs. The long front and back panels, representing the elephant’s trunk, show a combination of images unique to this example: humans, chameleons (symbolizing death), frogs (symbolizing fertility), and double gongs (representing the Kuosi society). The overall proportions are especially fine, and small details, such as the hanging strings of tiny white beads representing the teeth, make it a true masterpiece.
This soft sculpture required much time and skill to make. It is made from a frame of cane and raffia, covered with cotton cloth. The tiny glass beads, important trade beads of Venetian or Czechoslovakian manufacture, are sewn on individually.
The grasslands region of Cameroon in West Africa is home to many small, independent city-states, each ruled by a powerful king or fon. The king’s power is supported and complemented by the Kuosi society, a group of wealthy and powerful noblemen who act as his advisors. Only the highest-ranking men of this society are entitled to wear these elephant masks, which are lavishly covered with imported beads, demonstrating wealth. The masks are worn and danced every other year in public celebrations and in rites held at the death of society members. The mask is one of the most important sculpture forms found in African art. It is also the most difficult form to display and interpret in a museum setting because it is made to be worn and displayed in motion. The mask is an integral part of a ceremony featuring music, dance, and pantomime, without which it is incomplete
- Trace the use of lines, starting from the top and moving to the bottom.
How are the lines used to form shapes?What shapes are recognizable as parts of animals, including humans? Are other shapes geometric or organic? Explain with references to the work of art.
Describe the types of designs that these lines and shapes create.Are they curved, angular, symmetrical, etc.?
Observe closely to discover what materials might have been used to create those designs. Compare your discoveries with the list of materials.
This mask represents both an elephant and a human. What characteristics are taken from an elephant?Which appear more human?
Other symbols, such as chameleons and double gongs, are depicted.How are they arranged and what might they symbolize? Research to compare with your inferences.
Frogs, representing fertility, are also symbolized along the base and up the center. How have the artist(s) represented frogs?If you were asked to represent a frog, how would your symbolism compare to this?
Masks like this are worn by only the highest-ranking men of the African Bamileke peoples during public celebrations or funerals. Why might a king, who wears this mask in a ceremony, want to associate himself with an elephant? Explain.
These ceremonies typically involve music, dance, and pantomime. To see a picture of a mask similar to this being worn, go to: https://prv.mfah.org/twa/artcard.asp?aid=40. How might the high-ranking official move if he were wearing this mask? Demonstrate.
Predict how the mask’s movements might change to highlight the purposes of different types of ceremonies.
- Describe the Bamileke mask. What animal does it represent? What characteristics and behaviors of this animal is portrayed?
- Describe the materials used to make this mask. Describe the lines, shapes, colors, and textures.
- Research and discuss the role of masks in African and Native American cultures.
- This work of art was made without the use of machinery, but rather with simple tools. Imagine the time and skill necessary to apply each bead by hand.Describe what you think the Bamileke craftsmen’s experience was like.
The tiny glass beads were important trade items from Venice or the Czech Republic.How do these imports add to the value of the work of art?
The back of this mask is also covered in similar beaded designs. How would
you expect the back to look? To investigate further, go
The structural base was made with cane and raffia covered with cloth. What science and math skills might the artist(s) have to utilize to ensure this retains its shape during use? Sketch a design incorporating structural details.
Hypothesize characteristics of a culture that would create this mask.What might be considered important?What role does art play in this society? Explain and support with research on the African Bamileke peoples.
If you were to wear this, imagine how you would place it on your body. Assess the measurements and determine what areas would cover your head, body and legs.
Demonstrate. Would it fit you?
Have you ever worn a mask? Was it during a celebration? Compare the use of this mask to the one you wore.
Locate the cultural group, that created this mask, on maps and globes. Research the culture, the times in which it flourished, and their belief systems.
Research the use of masks in various African cultures. Learn about the types of masks, and the meaning and function of the masks.
Write a paragraph describing the use of masks in the culture. Compare and contrast using Venn diagrams.
Draw maps of the areas studied, illustrating them with masks.
Subject Matter Connection
In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas— whether economic, social, and political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas and principles.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.