This exhibit spotlights eight masks from our collection here at the SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.  Out of the dozens of masks that we house here, these eight stood out to us in their ability to convey something essential about the human experience. And while they all come from the region of West Africa, the lessons that they offer apply to us all, as they embody third gender and anthropomorphic beings and stories in an organic and effortless way. The narratives of these masks offer a look into the fluidity of the human experience, as varied and multi-dimensional as that experience may be. We hope that you leave this exhibit understanding a bit more about human nature, and perhaps even with a broadened definition of what it truly is to be “normal. ”

-Jazmin Hundal and Melissa Rollit, July 2017

Looking Beyond the Two-Gender Model

Third gender, intersex, two-spirit: these are just a few of the names used by different societies around the world to describe individuals that can either share both male and female features, or have a gendered identity that is other than male or female. Many traditional West African societies have a social place for these individuals as well, as male and female are not the only widely accepted genders in communities. There is often space for third genders, particularly as they are associated with spiritual power, and inspire elaborate practices and beliefs that are centered around them.

Three of the masks featured here in this exhibit are from the Bamana and Maninka cultures in Mali, and represent an origin story featuring twin hermaphrodites in some versions. The twins, Bambara and Malinke, are revered and sometimes feared for the power associated with them, as twins are often born prematurely and considered to have a survivor spirit. While these twins can be either fraternal or identical, and occasionally albino, it is clear from both past and current use of these masks that their use and ownership is significant in these societies. Bambara and Malinke masks are common both in their creation, and in the ethnographic record. They really embody the idea that third gendered narratives and individuals have had a place in human society for a long time, and that this is not just a ‘new phenomenon.’ Thus, these three masks are a great example of how third or alternative genders are not only accepted in West African societies, but are also an important part of their cultural traditions.

Bambara and Malinke masks are also interesting because of the number of horns that they have, and how that number intersects, and even contradicts, ideas in West Africa regarding indicators of third gender in mask art. The number of horns on Bambara Mask B and the Malinke Mask would indicate that they were both female. Similarly with Bambara Mask A, the number of horns and previous notes of its potential use in male initiation ceremonies suggested that it was male. While Bambara masks are oftentimes used in male initiation ceremonies in this area, it became clear after more in depth research into the twin origin story that they were third gender.

The Mossi mask from Burkina Faso also plays an interesting part in our discussion of gender, as at first glance, the mask’s beard would indicate that it is a man. However, this mask actually represents Poughtoenga, a bearded women and the first Mossi ruler. Poughtoenga, mother of Oubri, holds an important place in Mossi society, as she has been described as a ‘warrior princess,’ a leader whose beard may have allowed her to take on masculine traits or associations of power. Moreover, her facial hair may have been her way to challenge gender binaries. A common ancestor between the two Mossi ethnic groups (the Nioniosis and the Nakomse), Poughtoenga is an integral part of the history of this area, and like her neighbours on this side of the exhibit, presents alternative narratives of gender to her audience. The “Bearded Woman” is a poignant example of the fluidity of the human experience, not only in West Africa, but in humanity as a whole. 


Bambara Mask A

From N’Tomo culture in Gambay, Mali.

Bambara mask representing one of the twins from a N’Tomo creation legend that features two hermaphrodites in some versions (see Malinke mask for its counterpart). This mask has two roan antelopes positioned atop the head, and was decorated with red ochre, which is still visible to the naked eye. The antelope symbolism here is similar to what is used on the Chiwara headress, as both items related to agricultural myths of the area.


Bambara Mask B

From N’Tomo culture in Gambay, Mali.

Bambara mask representing one of the twins from a N’Tomo creation legend that features two hermaphrodites in some versions (see Malinke mask for its counterpart). This mask has four horns on its head decorated with cowrie shells, as well as a seated figure atop the mask. The seated figure, who has a likeness to Faro (the N’Tomo goddess of water), in combination with the number of horns would usually indicate that this mask is female. However, its association with the origin story means that this mask can be considered third gender. 

Malinke Mask

From N’Tomo culture in Gambay, Mali. 

Malinke mask representing one of the twins from a N’Tomo creation legend that features two hermaphrodites in some versions (see Bambara masks for its counterpart). It has eight horns on its head, which would normally indicate that it is female, but it can be considered third gender in this case because of its association with this origin story. This is mask is believed to have been created and used as an initiation award. 


Mossi Mask

From Mossi culture in Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou style.

Female mask with trefoil headpiece and goatee that depicts Poughtoenga. She plays a unifying role between the farmer and ruling classes of the Mossi as she is the daughter of a farmer, but also the mother of one of the first Mossi rulers. The addition of the goatee symbolizes Poughtoenga’s masculine traits of power and wisdom. 

Animal, Human, or Somewhere In-Between?

The idea that Western society tends to favour today, with animals and humans as separate entities, isn’t one that necessarily holds court in other areas of the world. Many Indigenous societies hold different views on the line between animal and human, including those here in North America who prefer to use the term ‘animal affinity’ when describing individuals or beings that share both animal and human traits. In contrast, Western cultures often use the word ‘anthropomorphism’ to describe anything that embodies both traits, and generally define an anthropomorphic being or art piece as a human taking on animal traits. On this side of the case, masks exhibiting shared animal and human traits are showcased, as they embody a key aspect of the fluidity of the human experience.

The Senoufu mask, which incorporates aspects of both crocodiles and antelopes, is an excellent example of animal affinity in West African art. This mask in particular would have been used in divination rituals, and generally to protect people from harmful spirits and supernatural beings. Senoufu masks and sculptures are used to link divinatory spirits with nature or animals in order to connect with the spiritual world. Most Senoufu diviners belong to a sando association, and the practice is generally passed down matrilineally (from woman to woman). Divination rituals generally involve the diviner holding their client’s hand, asking them certain questions, interpreting the movements of the client’s hands, and generally choosing a selection of items (such as masks) specific to the client and their case. With this mask, the crocodile teeth in particular are intended to provide protection against maleficent spirits, a way in which to ‘manage’ their relationship with specific spirits.

The Anang mask, which features a crow perched on the head of the masked individual, would also be used to connect to the ancestral world. This particular type of mask, which comes from a community within the Ibibio culture in Southern Nigeria, would be used in masquerade performances after the harvest season. One of the secret societies there, the Ekpo, rely on masks such as this one to complete that connection, as the crow and a few other similar birds are indigenous to the area, and considered to be related to the human community there.

The Guro mask, which features both crocodile and antelope traits showcases more the symbolism behind animal affinity art, as opposed to creating links with ancestors. The crocodile in the Guro culture symbolizes a powerful force that is often associated with a ruler or army, and so that symbolism plays a role when the mask is used in ceremonies during festive occasions.

Lastly, the Bambara antelope headdress at the bottom of this side of the case links the legendary animal, the Chiwara, to this piece of art. The Chiwara (part antelope, part aardvark) originally introduced agriculture to this society, and is often included in performances during the agricultural dry season by men who are adept in farming. The Chiwara, who is female, links human sustenance and crops to the animal world, and therefore also presents a great example of another way in which the divide between animal and human is fluid.


Senoufu Mask

From Senoufu Culture in Northern Cote d’Ivoire, Southeastern Mali, and Southwestern Burkina Faso.

Antelope mask with long horns and elongated crocodile teeth.The crocodile teeth were often used in this culture to protect a person from evil spirits, and this mask was generally used to divine a person’s future, by connecting to the spirit world through its animal elements. It would be used in conjunction with other Senoufu figurines during these rituals. 


Anang Mask

From Ibibio culture in Southern Nigeria. 

Mask with crow perched on its head, from the Anang ethnic group within the Ibibio culture. The mask belonged to one of the three secret societies in that area, the Ekpo, or cult of the ancestors. It was used in dance rituals to communicate with ancestral spirits, with the crow representing intelligence and insight.


Guro Mask

From Guro culture in Ghana.

Colourful mask with elongated facial features typical to the cultural area. The mask has an antelope figure attached to the forehead, and a crocodile figure attached to the chin, both of which symbolize different attributes. The crocodile represents characteristics of power, as it is regarded as the king of the marsh, while the antelope embodies qualities of grace and speed, and has agricultural connotations. 


Bambara Antelope Headdress

From N’Tomo culture in the Djitoumou region of Mali. 

Headdress that would be attached to a basketry hat. The figure depicts Chiwara, a spirit that is half antelope and half aardvark. In Bambara legends, Chiwara is credited with having introduced agricultural techniques to the area. The headdress was worn by the most skilled farmers during dance performances celebrating agriculture and the gifts of Chiwara.

Special thanks to  Moreno and Dagmar Gabay who originally collected these wonderful pieces, generoously donating them to the Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology in 2006.

Thanks to Katherine Luyten for all her help with the exhibit.

Photography, webpage, and exhibit by Jazmin Hundal and Melissa Rollit, 2017.