In Focus

Nwenka mask

Bobo boys and young men were not considered adult until they had been initiated into the worship of Dwo, the Creator God's representative, and learned the secret of masking. They learned about the relationship between Dwo and the Nwenka and other masks that appear on the occasions of harvest rites, male initiation rituals, and funerals. Nwenka embodies the spirit of Dwo and ultimately Wuro's spirit.

The Nwenka mask in one of the oldest and most sacred wooden masks that perform at Bobo masquerades. Tradition claims it dates from the time of creation when Wuro, the Creator God, molded the world from moist clay and made creates to inhabit it. The first humans he created were the blacksmith and his wife. When Wuro eventually retreated from the perfect world he had created, he left his three sons behind to help mankind maintain the balance between the opposing forces in the world. His most important son is Dwo, the mask, which Wuro fashioned out of leaves. This mask is the major spiritual being through which man can communicate with the Creator God. Wuro gave this mask to the blacksmith who carved other masks to manifest Dwo's many aspects. Each mask has a name, is worn by an elder who is concealed by a fiber costume, and has special choreography and musical accompaniment. The Nwenka masked dance imitates Wuro creating the world.

Bobo blacksmith-sculptors carve Nwenke masks (sing. Nwenka) in the form of a demi-helmet with an elongated trapezoidal human face featuring a prominent forehead, circular eyes, a long and narrow nose, and narrow chin. Nwenke masks are typically surmounted by a frontal plank decorated with openwork geometric patterns. There may be additional elements such as a bird's head, beak, or anthropomorphic figure carved on the helmet. These masks were traditionally painted red, white, and black and are worn with a costume of thick fibers.

The Dallas Nwenka mask is an excellent example of the type. The bird embodied in the frontal plank form and the traces of red, white, and blue pigment are original. The frontal plank is decorated with opposing columns of alternating solid and cutout triangles on either side of the long neck of a hornbill bird head that was carved separately in full relief. The openwork triangle motif is repeated on the sagittal crest running from the brown line to the back of the mask. Under each eye is a raised diagonal bar to represent the facial scarification worn by Bobo men. The mouth is a solid tubular form.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 122-123.