Ikwara (Judge Mask)

By: Kathryn Cua || Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Ikwara is a black mask used as an agent of social control originating from Ngounié in South Gabon. Also called ikwara-mokulu, its name means “mask of the night,” and its black colour is associated with malicious forces, the spirit world and sorcery. These masks are extremely rare.

The Punu ikwara, or 'judge mask', are worn by judges who have the ability to discover sorcerers. Those who wear the mask play the role of keepers of peace by upholding the law and resolving serious disputes within the community. In the event that a black ikwara mask is not available for a specific reconciliation rite, a white okuyi mask may be painted black and redefined for the present circumstances.

Ikwara masks and the rituals for which they are used are clouded in secrecy. The dancers of these masks and their assistants are the only people who sculpt the masks. If ikwara are performed outside the village, it is only for a limited audience, which typically includes elders and parties involved in the conflict.

Those who dance the masks are perched on small stilts, covered under cloth, raffia and other fibres. These rituals are performed quickly and at night only. The expediency of these rituals is partly due to the fear it instilled. It’s believed that the masked spirit only comes out of darkness for a few moments.

Distinguishing Features

  • Similar in shape and style to more popular white-faced okuyi
  • Dual-lobe, padded, braided hairstyle or big cylinder, covered with finely cut hair
  • Three-point keloid pattern arranged in an axial line above the nose
  • Expansive forehead marked by scarifications
  • Slight relief of the brows that are very small and high on the forehead
  • Arched slit eyes
  • Slightly concave sockets
  • Flat nose with marked wings
  • High cheekbones
  • Pointed chin
  • Pattern stretches to temples
  • Bright red markings around eyes
  • Some have scarification patterns around the eyes and sometimes on the lips
  • Pouting full lips
  • Painted entirely black or dark brown
    • Black pigment made from calcination of wood
    • Coal sprayed and mixed to resin and palm oil

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