Kponyungo (Funeral Helmet Mask)

By: Kathryn Cua || Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The kponyungo mask is the generic Senufo term for helmet masks. Kponyungo translates to 'funeral head mask', or 'head of Poro'.

The Senufo use helmet masks across a number of different organised societies. For example, the Kufulo use kponyungo masks, but kunugbaha masks are used by the Fonon; wangugu masks are used in the Wambele society; and the Fodonon use gbon masks.

Various categories of kponyungo masks exist, and the system by which masks are attributed to these categories is very complex. The mask’s function, name and accompanying accessories vary among the different Senufo societies and some Poro use more than one type of mask. Masks of the same category might exhibit a diversity in aesthetic qualities, including variations in name, style and symbolism. So, some masks might have wholly dissimilar forms but be of the same name. On the other hand, masks of similar appearance might be identified by different names.

Although there are many variations in names and style of masks, the masquerades in which kponyungo are used, deal with the same themes. These masquerades are used to acknowledge the reality of evil but also provide solutions to dealing with it. Other occasions during which these masks are used include funerals of important dignitaries of the Poro society and occasions in parts of Senufo country to punish lawbreakers and evil spirits.

Sculptors create kponyungo masks with the intention to apprehend, incite fear and foster uncertainty. Kponyungo masks are not representative of any one animal, but they might make visual references to powerful animals such as crocodiles, antelopes and warthogs. With their open jaws that contain sharp teeth, these masks allude to a creature prepared to devour its prey. The spectacles in which kponyungo are used only reinforces the ferocity of the mask. In some cases—although not common—masqueraders manipulate fire by walking through or spitting out flames. In other cases, a swarm of vicious bees leave the open jaws of the mask and hover over the crowd until they return to the mask.

When one Poro mask is carved, an identical one is commissioned in the event something happens to the first mask. If the first mask is stolen or suffers destruction, the Poro have an immediate replacement. Spare masks are almost never danced or used in any capacity. Oftentimes, it might not even have holes carved round the edges of the face, which are used to attach head cloths. Spare masks might not show any evidence of use. Moreover, these masks will not harbour any supernatural forces because they are not ritually consecrated until they must be used.

Distinguishing Features

  • Large and elaborate zoomorphic helmet mask
  • Most still show adze and knife strokes
  • Numerous iconographic attributes of various animals including:
    • Spiraled antelope/bush cow horns at back of helmet
    • Horn-bill or chameleon depicted between horns
    • Warthog tusks emerge from open crocodile jaws
    • Ram's horns flanking nose (sometimes replaced by hollow cup on crest)
    • Sharp teeth in open crocodile mouth
    • Some have female figure added to muzzle of mask
  • Surface of mask painted rather than encrusted with sacrificial material

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