Vogel (1997: 141-144) notes: “Mblo masks […] are one of the oldest of Baule art forms. This refined human face mask, the prototypical Baule object in art collections, is usually a portrait of a particular known individual. […] More than any other kind of mask, Mblo embody the core Baule sculpture style manifested in figures and decorated objects – spoons, combs, pulleys and the like. Lustrous curving surfaces, suggesting clean, healthy, well-fed skin, are set off by delicately textured zones representing coiffures, scarifications, and other ornaments. The idealized faces are introspective, with the high foreheads of intellectual enlightenment and the large downcast eyes of respectful presence in the world. Ornaments above the face […] are chosen for their beauty, and have no iconographic significance; braided beards, and fine scarifications and coiffures, denote personal beauty, refinement, and a desire to give pleasure to others [… The] Mblo portrait mask was the summit of Baule sculpture, the most beautiful art form […].”
According to Philipp Ravenhill (in Phillips 1995: 142, text to cat. 71), Baule portrait masks were “worn to enact a series of characters who dance to music with a participatory audience. The performance climaxes with the arrival of [Mblo] in human form, especially portrait masks inspired by actual people. The subject portrayed in, and honored by, a mask [occasionally danced] with it and address[ed] it affectionately as 'namesake' (ndoma). As in Baule figurative sculpture that depicts otherworldly mates or bush spirits, the face of the mask is critical to Baule ideas of personhood and verisimilitude. It is in looking at the mask's gaze that one perceives it as a person with a living presence.”
And Vogel (1997: 26 and 28) continues: Baule sculptures "are appreciated for their subtle rhythms and a beauty that stops short of sweetness. To the Western eye, an essence of Baule style is a balanced asymmetry that enlivens while suggesting stability and calm. [...] To an art historian, the most consistent feature of Baule art, and one expressed across the wide variety of Baule object types, is a kind of peaceful containment. Faces tend to have downcast eyes […] so that Westerners might feel that the mood of much classical Baule art is introspective."
As the names of most traditional African artists did not survive, it is exceptionally rare to know the name of an artist, and rarer still to know both his and the name of the subject represented. The Kunin Mask is such an exceptionally rare case. Based on field research conducted by Susan Vogel between 1971 and 1996, the Kunin Mask was created by Owie Kimou of Kami (d. 1948) as portrait of Moya Yanso (ca. 1890 – 1973), a woman renowned throughout Kami for her ideal beauty. Vogel (loc. cit.: 137) notes: “This mask was carved around 1913 by Owie Kimou, Kami’s most celebrated artist (d. 1948) on a commission from Moya Yanso’s new husband, a famous dancer who originally wore it. The mask was later danced by Yanso’s son, Soule and later still by Ndri (ca. 1939-1995), and by his older brother, her husband’s two sons by another wife. Yanso continued to accompany the mask for many years, until she was no longer physically able. Later, her granddaughter accompanied it, in increasingly rare performances, until it was sold in the mid-1990s.”
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