ox head helmet mask

Bidjogo people
Creation date
wood, horn, pigment, glass, iron, mastic
16 1/2 x 20 1/4 x 18 1/2 in.
Credit line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Eiteljorg
Accession number
Currently On View In
Eiteljorg Suite of African and Oceanic Art - W304

This Bidjogo helmet mask is a naturalistic rendering of an ox head with gathered skin on the neck and wrinkles around the eyes.  The lifelike appearance is enhanced with real animal horns and glass eyes.

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Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

Real horns, carved ridges representing the creases of the neck, and wrinkles encircling the eyes make this mask a remarkably realistic likeness of an ox. This headpiece is traditionally worn by an adolescent boy participating in an initiation ceremony on the Bidjogo Islands, part of the nation of Guinea-Bissau. The youngest Bidjogo boys wear masks in the shape of calves or nonthreatening species of fish; as they progress toward full maturity, young men wear more elaborate ox or shark masks and mimic the animals’ ferocity. The masker wears the sculpture on top of his head, with the animal’s face pointing upward, and sometimes assumes the ox’s four-legged stance. The heavier the mask, the more courage and maturity its young bearer demonstrates.

The Bidjogo Islanders’ carvings are naturalistic, whereas those of their mainland neighbors tend to be more abstract. This mask is made with real horns axed with resin. Ox-headed masks such as this one are the most representational of the Bidjogo animal-shaped headpieces, which also include images of crocodiles, sharks, and hippopotamuses. These masks honor the animals’ power—and threat—within the life of the Bidjogo people.

For the Bidjogo, the ox is a valued domestic animal that signifies tamed and channeled strength.