Okuyi (Female 'Mourning' Mask)


By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Punu and Lumbo of the Gabonese Republic are matrilineal; they trace their lines of descent through the women of the community. As such, female ancestors are venerated and the 'first' female ancestor—the mukaukila or 'first woman'—is honoured through sculpture, ceremonies, song, and dance.

One way in which the mukaukila and other female ancestors are honoured is with okuyi (pl. mekuyo) 'white masks' of the mwiri male initiation society. Embodying the spirit of a deceased young maiden in the spirit realm, these masks are believed to harness the powers of female ancestors. They are worn and danced in communal rites such as funerals, youth initiations, and births.

Okuyi masks are also worn by stilt performers from the mwiri society during ritual ceremonies, to request spiritual intervention in the hunt for malicious sorcerers and witches. Dancing on stilts up to three metres high, holding fly-whisks, and dressed in costumes of plant fibres, the dancers are a sign of authority and inspire a mixture of admiration and fear in view of the amazing physical exploits of their performances.

NOTE: Depending on peoples and regions, this dance is variously known under the names of ocuya, ukuyi, mokoi, ikwara, okukwe, mukudj (mukuyi or mukudji), and mbwanda.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all okuyi masks:

  • Carved to capture the likeness of the most beautiful woman in the village
  • White face
  • High ample hairstyle
    • Full black braids that peak on top
    • Some have a high central crest and two finely braided lateral sections
    • Two-crested hairstyle is a rare example
    • NOTE: Various types of coiffure help differentiate regional varieties
  • Diamond scarification on forehead
  • Face of “natural” dimensions
  • Ovoid, rhomboid or triangular in form
  • Surmounted with an ample crested headdress
    • Always carefully made
    • Black in colour
    • Full, finely plaited halves, sometimes with tresses hanging at the sides
  • Forehead and temples marked with scarified diamond-shaped pattern (depending on region)
    • NOTE: Nine scales evoke the nine primordial mythical clans (magumbi)
    • Always bright red
  • Finely arched eyelids
  • Half-closed eyes
    • Without pupils
    • Bulging eyelids
  • Well-defined and carefully-shaped
  • Red-stained lips
  • Sometimes teeth are mutilated (two incisors pulled out); a mark of the initiation of women
  • Coated in kaolin

Regional variations (Central region; Punu & Lumbo variant):

  • 'Natural' dimensions (10 inches) or larger examples (16 inches)
  • Single and ample headdress (buyi) with short lateral tresses or hairstyle divided into halves (mabuda)
  • Hair stained black
  • Face may be marked by keloid scarification on forehead and temples
  • Half-closed 'coffee bean' eyes
  • Slender noses rounded around the nostrils
  • Small 'V-shaped' mouths or in form of infinity sign '∞'
  • Well-defined red lips

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