Punu Mukudj Mask

Punu Mukudj Mask

Culture: Punu
Place of Origin: Southern Gabon or Southwestern Republic of Congo

The Punu people of Gabon and Republic of Congo live in small villages, mainly along the Ogowe River Basin. They are a matrilineal people organized into hereditary chiefdoms. Like most of the peoples of central and northwest Africa, they have animistic religious beliefs. Within every Punu village is the Mwiri Society, a secret men’s organization whose members alone may craft masks. Masks serve many important functions in Punu society, including social control and purification of evil spirits and witchcraft.

The mukudj mask (also called okuyi, mokoi, ukuyi, mokoi or mbwanda) simultaneously represents an ancestor spirit and an idealized woman. The diamond pattern on the forehead and squares on the temples represent the scarification marks common among Punu women and emphasize the symmetry of the face. The mukudj is danced by male members of the Mwiri Society on very tall stilts at births, funerals, initiation ceremonies for adulthood, and other major social events to invoke the approval of ancestor spirits.

The creator of a "mukudj" mask would attempt to capture the likeness of the most beautiful woman in his community. The subject of this particular idealized and stylized portrait was embellished in classic nineteenth-century fashion with a coiffure composed of a central lobe and two lateral tresses and with cicatrization motifs on the forehead and temples. Kaolin taken from riverbeds, which was associated with healing and with a spiritual, ancestral realm of existence, was applied to the surface of the face. By using this material, the artist both celebrated the beauty of a mortal woman and transformed her into a transcendent being.

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