Moghondzi (Ancestor Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Vuvi of Gabon are a small ethnic group between the Offoué and Lolo Rivers. Like their Kota, Fang and Punu neighbours, the Vuvi worship and venerate ancestors through a number of rituals and ceremonies. The practice of ancestor worship (called bwete) ensures the protection and survival of the family group.

Also called bwete is the initiation association that all young people must enter before they are considered well rounded individuals with a full understanding of the belief system of the society. Responsible for controlling all aspects of community life, the bwete involves instructing the young, over a six month period, on religious and disciplinary principles of the community. Secluded from the village, in a ebandza ritual temple, participants have to endure mental and physical challenges designed to embed knowledge and test the will and resolve of the initiates.

Upon completion of the gruelling initiation period, the young 'adults' are welcomed back into the community with song and dance. Masked dancers (wearing moghondzi masks) emerge from the dark forest at night, symbolising deceased ancestors pleased with the new initiates—they are said to arrive from the land of the dead, the land of Kombe, the guardian of the 'village of the dead'. The masks are believed to represent the spiritual entities of Kombe (the sun), Ngonde (the moon), Minanga (the stars), and Ngadi (thunder).

"After their use, the masks are placed among other ritual objects in a hut provided for this purpose."2

NOTE: Sources state that the majority of Vuvi masks were mostly collected in the 1930s.

Distinguishing Features

  • Strikingly clean, graphic, and abstract design
  • White, red or black masks
  • Hair carved as large rounded band
  • Flat rectangular, oval or shield-shaped
  • Heart shaped face
  • Facial features concentrated in upper part of mask
  • Facial features summarised by few lines in slight relief
  • Two long, curved and jointed arcs form eyebrows
  • Arcs linked by triangular nose
  • Eyes either close together or elongated towards temples
  • No ears carved
  • Cheeks sometimes incised / painted with mwiri ritual scarification (painted blue)
  • Mouth always open, sometimes displaying teeth
  • Triangular chin
  • Some have a red rectangular band incised / painted from mouth to chin (representing a beard)
  • Edge of mask pierced with holes (plant fibres attached)
  • Most masks painted in white kaolin (representing Ngonde, the moon)
    • Eyebrows, nose and mouth painted reddish brown or black
    • Some masks painted red (representing Kombe, the sun)
    • Even rarer examples painted black (for judiciary purposes)
    • Only a few bi-coloured masks exist

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