Bangwa, Valley of Fontem, Grasslands region, Cameroon, 19th century
Wood, dark crusty patina
Height : 37 cm
Provenance : Jacques Kerchache, Paris
Private collection, Belgium
A certificate by Madame Anne Kerchache comes with the piece.
In his book of reference “Arts anciens du Cameroun”, Pierre Harter writes about the secret society known as Troh : “Each dignitary of the Troh owns a wooden mask-helmet, inheritated from his predecessor, which constitutes a collection of nine masks per chiefdom and only seven per sub-chiefdom. These are the symbols of power in the same way as the society itself. They are so powerful and dangerous that one cannot wear them directly on the head, but only on the shoulders. The very sight of these masks is deemed capable to transmit a strong evil energy to the non-initiated, that’s why they inspire such a terror to the crowd. The mask keeper only is autorized to touch them and move them around, after he went through certain rites. For generations, they were stored in his hut, above the roof where, like all objects from this region, they progressively developed thick laminated layers of soot, enhancing their power. They were exceptionally exhibited during important funerals and successions. In the past, the Troh held night meetings in one of the huts of the palace, where each member was coated with kaolin and camwood (Baphia nitida). In the minds of the common people, these sessions mainly involved practices of sorcery, or the killing of a convicted person.” (1986 : 303)
Pierre Harter identified two types of masks, a very cubistic style, typically Bangwa, and a more naturalistic one, influenced by the Bamileke. Inside this corpus, we observe, however, a wide variety of form. While this impressive example shares some common characteristics with the majority of masks of the Night Society, like the dreadful expression with large exaggerated facial features, bilobed headdress and thick crusty patina, it also shows a few particularities.
The face is highly stylized and geometrical, with the eyes, brows, mouth and nose carved in hemispherical and elliptical shapes. The repetition of these themes on several layers creates a feeling of interpenetration with forms expanding and showing in perfect harmony. the mouth, wide open along the lower edge and showing teeth filled down to points, unusual for this type of masks, seems to have been borrowed from the zoomorphic masks of the Bekom neighbours.