Karan-Wemba (Ancestor Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Mossi of Bukina Faso and the Dogon of Mali make use of karan-wemba masks.

For the Dogon, the masks represent a Yasigine or Satimbe, an elderly woman who, as part of the mask society, has been part of two Sigi ceremonies (a celebration held once every 60 years, commemorating the transformational process of the first ancestor).

The Mossi believe that karan-wemba masks represent their founding 'mother' and the primordial spirits associated with the society's origin. Among the Mossi, these masks are also said to depict of an old widow with many adult children, that once again lives in her father's home due to the death of her husband. Respected by the community for her great age, wisdom, and for adding to the community's numbers, the Wemba is revered as a living ancestor. Upon her death she is honoured by the creation of a karen-wemba mask which is danced at her funeral.

Distinguishing Features

  • Face mask represents head of sacred antelope (Koba)
    • Oval face
    • Face without mouth or ears
    • Carved out cavities for eyes
    • Midrib bisecting face serves as a nose
    • Horns sometimes present on mask
    • Spiral marks on horns blackened by burning
    • Bar of wood attached to back of mask (performer clamps between teeth to secure the mask)
    • NOTE: The most striking style difference between the Mossi and the Dogon is the rectangular face of Dogon masks and the oval or round face of Mossi masks2
  • Mask surmounted by female figure (Wemba; ancestor figure)
    • Rare examples have two female figures (rarer still, male and female)
    • Figure either in front of or on top of a plank or in mostly cases, entirely replaces the plank
    • Crescent-shaped coiffure
    • Pierced ears
    • Oval, white, abstract face
    • Elbows carved on slightly bent arms
    • Pointed breasts
    • Arched back
    • Cylindrical body
    • Body adorned with scarification patterns
    • Legs bent at knees
  • Mask painted black, white and/or red

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