Yaure Mask from the "Lo" Ensemble
By Alain-Michel Boyer
In its harmonious association of antithetical elements, this exceptional mask offers a vibrant testament to the organic form typical of the Yaure . On the one hand, the offered mask exhibits fine facial features, with its polished surfaces and flowing lines; on the other, three horns carved with the finest craftsmanship that curve inwards in perfect harmony, beyond the very contrast they imply between man and beast. This combination of an anthropomorphic face with animal motifs, which seems to present us with the appearance of nature and humanity miraculously reconciled, is intended to evoke the supernatural in order to convey the dual nature of the divinity connected both to the village and to the bush. In the revelation of this instant of harmony - this subtlety paired with such dynamic vitality - it mostly seeks to express a tempered, internalised energy: the horns themselves are finely decorated with lines, triangles, as if reining in wildlife through geometric order, bending it to the law of rational signs. Although the artist ennobles the animal - whose emblems are the only elements he preserves - following the same lines that lead him to idealise the human figure, he also retains a vibrancy and strength from his alliance with the animal world that allow this piece to exert its full power of attraction.
Several masks in this style were identified in the early twentieth century. One of them, published in 1918 by de Zayas , displays several striking similarities in the inflections of its outline with the one at hand, as well as a similar three horned movement. These elements are so clearly expressed that the work of a single artist, or, at the very least, of a single workshop, can be surmised. Most Yaure faces form a perfect oval, however in this figure the elongation of the face and the tapering towards the receding chin clearly suggest a style similar to that of the Guro. Likewise the mouth, which is not entirely positioned on the frontal plane, is parted to reveal teeth carved into triangles. Moreover, this mask comes from the Guro region of Sinfra, some forty kilometres away from the nearest Yaure villages. The practice of resorting to celebrated but relatively remote sculptors from a neighbouring ethnic group was common, and was even considered to imbue the mask with more prestige, "sacredness" and power. There were only half a dozen Yaure artists, Sinfra and Barata workshops, whose origins, according to present day sculptors, are very ancient, and who were very renowned and had a singularly productive output.
Importantly, the crenelated frieze surrounding the effigy is characteristic of Yaure aesthetics. It is not designed to lessen the face but rather to enhance it by framing it. Similarly the coiffure is arranged into three circular arcs and reaches the height of refinement in this piece, as it bears an intricately carved pattern rendering fine juxtaposed braids that also form a semi-circle. The double crescent formed by the eyes and the finely striated eyebrows - striae also to be found at the base of the eyelids - merges at the root of a straight and narrow nasal bridge that bears scarification marks - also repeated in a ternate pattern on the temples - before flowing seamlessly into each side of the nose, thus mirroring the upper curves.
Another unique feature of this mask is the addition of brass spikes and plates. These features identify it with a famous mask in the Paul Guillaume collection between 1919 to 1935. This mask was collected during the same period as the mask referenced above. Both bear two triangles made from the same metal, similarly nailed onto its cheeks. According to present day sculptors, "this practice, once used by Elders, is long gone". For decades now masks have been covered in industrial paints, which, in their opinion, have "the appearance of brass plates" , despite the fact that these areas of colour give the effigies a variegated aspect.
Who could ever imagine that such a graceful mask, modulated with the utmost optical sensitivity and incomparable artistry to enhance the play of light and shade, is the emblem of a fearsome but protective deity (called "Yu"), and that its appearance in villages so terrified women that they were made to hide during the ceremony, on pain of death? It does not represent a specific individual in any way, but instead stands as a tribute to the supernatural force. It is part of a set (known as the "Lo ensemble"), which comprises seven masks (including helmet-masks), and it comes into action before the burial of an elderly man, to allow the passage of his "double" (the "lei") to the "manes' resting place" (the "iremofla") thus raising the deceased to the rank of ancestor ("vremo").
Sometimes regarded as a "marginal" people or a mere "fringe" of the Guro people (and admittedly, the Yaure belong culturally and linguistically to the Mandeka, as do the Guro and the Wan), or, in contrast, and infinitely more frequently, as a subgroup of the Baule (who are themselves Akan), the Yaure have long been associated with their powerful neighbours. Yet it is their artwork that gives this people, which is numerically insignificant (only 20 000 inhabitants) but nonetheless famous for its masks, a fully-fledged cultural and religious autonomy. It is worth noting that they themselves pronounce the first syllable with an "o" and that the ethnonym "Yohourè" is the written form used in Côte d'Ivoire, although the Anglo-Saxon spelling - "Yaure"- prevails in African Art publications.
See online: "James J. Ross Archive of African Images" featuring pieces published before 1921.
March de Zayas, Modern Gallery, New York; photograph by Charles Sheeler. Sold to John Quinn the same year, acquired in 1926 by the University Museum of Philadelphia, it was stolen whilst on loan in 1935 (James J. Ross Archive).
 Another similar mask, with three horns curving towards the forehead; a jè mask, kept at the Musée Barbier-Mueller. Musée Barbier-Mueller, inv. 1007-204. Reproduced in: Arts de la Côte d’Ivoire, tome 2, fig. 186, p. 112, Editions Barbier-Mueller, Genève, 1993
See: Les Arts à Paris chez Paul Guillaume 1918-1935, Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1993.
Reproduced (but wrongly designated as "Baule") in 1929 by Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro in La Sculpture Nègre Primitive (Paris, G. Crès et Cie, p. VI), it now belongs to the collections of the Musée du Quai Branly and appears in many African Art publications, including: Jacques KERCHACHE et al., L’Art africain, Paris, Citadelles-Mazenod, p. 131, pl. 67, 1988 ; Ezio BASSANI, Le Grand Héritage, Paris, Musée Dapper, p. 28, 1989 ; Christiane FALGAYRETTES-LEVEAU et alii. Masque, Paris, Musée Dapper, 1995, p. 108; etc.
See: Alain-Michel BOYER, "L’Art yohourè", in: Arts de la Côte d’Ivoire tome 1, Geneva, Musée Barbier-Mueller, 1993, p. 246-289.
 It also played a part in the purification of villages, helping to do away with the "dirt" created by death (no death is truly "natural", it is caused by a "doubles eater"), thus restoring the social balance.
Parfois considérés comme un peuple « marginal », simple « frange » de l’ensemble guro (certes, les Yohure sont, culturellement et linguistiquement, des Mandeka, comme les Guro et les Wan) voire, à l’inverse, ce qui est infiniment plus fréquent, comme un sous-groupe des Baule (qui sont, eux, des Akan), les Yohure ont longtemps été rattachés à leurs puissants voisins. C’est pourtant son art qui confère à ce peuple, peu important numériquement (à peine 20 000 habitants), mais célèbre pour ses masques, une pleine autonomie culturelle et cultuelle. A noter qu’ils prononcent eux-mêmes la première syllabe avec un "o" et l'on écrit l'ethnonyme Yohourè en Côte d'Ivoire, même si, dans les ouvrages d’art africain, prévaut la graphie anglo-saxonne « Yaure ».
Voir online : « James J. Ross Archive of African Images » qui présente des œuvres publiées avant 1921.
Marius de Zayas, Modern Gallery, New York ; photographie de Charles Sheeler. Vendu à John Quinn la même année, acquis en 1926 par l’University Museum de Philadelphie, il a été volé lors d’un prêt en 1935 (James J. Ross Archive).
Autre masque analogue, avec les trois cornes qui s’inclinent vers le front, un masque du jè, au Musée Barbier-Mueller. Musée Barbier-Mueller, inv. 1007-204. Reproduit dans : Arts de la Côte d’Ivoire, tome 2, fig. 186, p. 112, Editions Barbier-Mueller, Genève, 1993
Voir : Les Arts à Paris chez Paul Guillaume 1918-1935, Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1993.
Reproduit (mais donné à tort comme « baoulé ») en 1929 par Paul Guillaume et Thomas Munro dans La Sculpture Nègre Primitive (Paris, G. Crès et Cie, p. VI), il appartient aujourd’hui aux collections du Musée du Quai Branly, et figure dans de nombreux ouvrages d’art africain, notamment dans : Jacques KERCHACHE et al., L’Art africain, Paris, Citadelles-Mazenod, p. 131, pl. 67, 1988 ; Ezio BASSANI, Le Grand Héritage, Paris, Musée Dapper, p. 28, 1989 ; Christiane FALGAYRETTES-LEVEAU et al. Masque, Paris, Musée Dapper, 1995, p. 108 ; etc.
Voir : Alain-Michel BOYER, « L’Art yohourè », dans : Arts de la Côte d’Ivoire tome 1, Genève, Musée Barbier-Mueller, 1993, p. 246-289.
Il participe aussi à une opération de purification du village, en contribuant à chasser les « souillures » apportées par la mort (aucun décès n’est vraiment « naturel », il a été provoqué par un « mangeur de doubles ») et ainsi rétablir l’équilibre social.
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