The Punu masks of Gabon—white faces crowned by elegant prominent coiffures—convey a captivating sense of serenity, in keeping with their purpose.
The typology of the Punu mask
Although Punu masks tend to be easily identifiable by their stylistic features, their authentication is more problematic and requires close observation of the object’s design and materials.
Punu masks associate the idealized faces of several ethnic groups from Ngounié province in Gabon with a spiritual purpose, universally linked to the concept of beauty. The contour of the face forms a perfect oval, ending in a slightly pointed chin. The features are very delicate, with high, prominent cheekbones that accentuate the peaceful expression of the almond-shaped “coffee bean” eyes with their heavy eyelids. The realistic nose underscores the perfect symmetry of the light-complexioned face; the fleshy red mouth is often closed, but sometimes half-open revealing jagged teeth. The diamond-shaped scarification marks (magumbi) evoke the nine legendary provinces of the Kingdom of Kongo.
Silent or whispering Punu masks have the kind of peaceful, meditative expression that one would like to see on the faces of the dead… and the color of the mask clearly indicates its significance: the pembé white obtained from kaolin clay is the color associated with the afterlife. According to André Raponda-Walker and Roger Sillans, pembé used to be mixed with “pulverized splinters” of human bones. This link with the ancestors, a form of celebration of the vitality of lineages, could explain why these masks have female features and why Punu women coat their faces with white clay at the ceremonies where such masks are worn. The bright red of padauk wood creates a striking contrast, but can turn gray with age. The elaborate coal black coiffure is an indication of the value and price of a Punu mask. It should be noted that natural pigments have now been replaced by paint. Most Punu masks have helmet-like coiffures, but more unusual versions are also worthy of interest.
The earliest known examples are masks with “visors,” distinguished by a coiffure that projects like a visor over the forehead. The Punu mask on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford belongs to that category.
Some masks have a handle sealed into the surround of the carved face, allowing the wearer to hold the mask in front of his face. Such masks form a homogeneous group; they all have either a large central lobe or two lobes, one on each side of the head.
Some rare ancient masks have hair glued to them. They are distinguished by an inverted cone-shaped coiffure with lateral braids, covered with human hair.
The significance and purpose of Punu masks
Punu masks are also known as mukudji or mukuyi—the names of the ceremonies at which they appear and the stilt dances associated with them. They are only worn by male members of the mwiri society, who dance on tall stilts on the occasion of celebrations marking the end of mourning, and more generally at important social events in the life of a community. Their joyful, acrobatic walkabout performances are reminiscent of their former role as initiators and guarantors of social order, the cleanliness of community spaces, and even the moral behavior of the inhabitants.
Black Punu masks
Black or brown Punu masks are rarer than the white ones. They have coarser, less harmonious faces and their meaning is probably linked to the observance of social norms and morality.
To go further :
Louis Perrois, Charlotte Grand-Dufay, Punu, Collection Visions d’Afrique, Éditions 5 Continents, 2008