Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Mpungwe or Punu Female Mask

Catalog Number: J006


11.6" x 7.36" x 5.32"

294.7 mm x 187.11 mm x 135.03 mm

Materials: pigment
Usage: N/A
Detailed Description of Significance:

This wooden mask represents a beautiful woman. While a mask of this type is best known as a mukudj or mukuyi, the name given it by the Punu people, such masks are found among many peoples who live along the Ogooué and Nyanga rivers in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. In previous generations, such masks were styled after actual women—often rumored to be the most beautiful in their community—who may have even modeled for the carver. Alternatively, some such masks may have been modeled after women who had died, a fact suggested by the white pigment applied to the face. Nowadays, the masks represent ideals of female beauty rather than any particular person. Characteristic features of these masks are found in other figurative art from the region, including the heart-shaped face with round features, large eyes, and lozenge-shaped scarification patterns on the forehead.

During France’s colonization of Gabon in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, makudj masks (separated from the fiber costumes they are worn alongside) found their way into European and North American art collections and museums, where they helped inspire the modern art movement. As these masks have traveled the world, the mask has gained a secondary association:  as an emblem of Punu identity. Indeed, some present-day Punu use makudj masks in their home decor as a sign of ethnic identity.