The Punu produced white masks, famous throughout Gabon. Matisse and Picasso both owned Punu masks at the beginning of the 20th century and considered them as the finest in their collections.
The masks from the south of Gabon represent the ancestral spirits and have no connection with the genies or spirits of nature. These masks are generally shown individually and with very carefully prepared staging. Through its gestures and acrobatics the mask must bring back to life the image of the deceased or death itself. The masked dancer emerges from the bush on stilts either at sunrise or sunset, but never in broad daylight. These masks are not considered sacred in any way, are kept in a humid environment, used for short periods of time, and replaced as soon as they are no longer usable.
When these masks are black, the dark coating is made from crushed seeds mixed with palm oil. These masks may have served as training masks for novice dancers. They may also have been old white masks repainted black on the occasion of misfortune in the community such as an epidemic, crime, or witchcraft. They may also have had a judicial function and helped to uncover witches.
The Punu live in the south and the south west of Gabon.
Social Organisation and History of the Punu
They are one of the forty or so ethnic groups in Gabon, with similar institutions, and a daily lifestyle greatly affected by a physically hostile environment. With no centralized political organisation, social life is centered on the village and the clans. The Punu worship the cult of their ancestors, the protecting genies or spirits, and the initiation brotherhoods that have both a therapeutic and judicial role regulate social life. These groups use statues and masks that are brought out for funerary rituals, initiation ceremonies and magical rites of which the main objective is to uncover witches.
The Punu are matrilineal and patrilocal. If the father of the family dies, the children go to live with the mother’s brother (the uncle). Lineage is transmitted through the women. They are the largest ethnic group in the south of Gabon.
The term Punu can as easily signify ‘valiant warrior’ as ‘bandit of the great deadly path’. There was a dissident faction, the Bjag or Bayaca, meaning ‘warrior’, ‘wild’, ‘killer’ that battled against the Kingdom of Kongo (Christianized in 1491), and against the Portuguese that intervened following the taking of the Kongo capital San Salvador in 1569 by the Bayaca.
Woman’s place in Punu Society
Punu women have always been known for their beauty, and their hairstyles hold great importance for them. Jewellery, earrings, necklaces and bracelets on both arms and legs are all part of their concern with their appearance. Punu women were very sought after for marriages and hence victims of a great number of kidnappings. In the past, they have been sold, swapped, loaned, rented, stolen and the cause of many a trial, hostilities and wars.
Today, as in the past, Punu women take care of the crops. They plant, weed and harvest whilst the men clear the fields. In the past, Punu women were reputed potters, however, today they continue to make basketry.
The women were, and still are united through associations, and undergo initiation rites during which they are submitted to painful physical tests.
Religious Beliefs and Rites among the Punu
The Punu, like most of the peoples of south Gabon, have always had sacred beliefs that legitimized the chief’s power, determined the relationships between clans, and controlled their very existence. They believe in the immortality of the soul, and an afterlife. They recognize the existence of a supreme god, unattainable and mysterious, but to whom they do not dedicate a cult.
In the past, the Gabonese lived in permanent fear of evil. Death and illness were unnatural to them and they believed that they were caused by others. Some of the dead spirits were seen as benevolent, and they were honoured with devotion by the ancestral cults. There were other malevolent spirits that made life unsupportable, evil forces that needed to be soothed through rites in order to recover to good health. In the case of war, preparations need to be carried out by the priest or ‘Nganga’. These Nganga were always elderly people recognized for their knowledge of supernatural phenomena. These notables, considered as witches or priests were the masters of occult powers. The Nganga healed illnesses by keeping away the bad spirits and by protecting those that called upon their services by providing them with the appropriate talismans or fetish figures in exchange for money or goods.
The Gabonese as a whole, as much today as in the past, are very concerned by their relationship with the ancestors. Allover Africa, the ancestors were worshipped through similar rituals. A defunct that had been forgotten could become revengeful. It was customary for the Punu and others such as the Shira, Mpongwe, Nkomi, Tsogo, to conserve human relics (skull fragments, long bones, finger joints), in wicker baskets or simple packets made from leather or leaves. These baskets were commonly surmounted by a figurine sculpted from wood and painted and of which the base of the body was firmly embedded into the reliquary packet and tied up with string so that it was in contact with the bones. Only the chief of the family and the great initiated could handle these sacred relics without danger, offer libations or spray them with the blood of sacrificed animals.
Secret Societies, Dances and Masks of the Punu
Secret societies play an important role in the socio-political life of the Punu. The chiefs of the clans, lineages and villages had great powers in controlling behavior, but sometimes, in order to combat unruliness, abuse and deviants, more collective, severe and rapid methods were needed. This was made possible by secret societies such as the Mwiri or the Bwiti. Each brotherhood has its own specific dances, and sometimes, but not always, masks. In the past, the Mwiri (word meaning: to lead), brought together all the men from Punu villages. It is the symbol of force, power, virility and also of truth. The society was greatly feared, especially by women, who were killed if they tried to know its secrets. The Mwiri is a water genie or spirit, a giant saurian. A motif of saurian scales can be found as a scarification mark on the temples and foreheads of a great number of white masks, and in particular Punu masks. In every village there was an altar dedicated to the Mwiri.
The Mwiri have several dances, the most popular being the Okuyi. For this dance, performed at the beginning or end of the mourning period, the white masks are used. The mask’s voice is high and sharp, that of a dead woman, as is suggested by the choice of the mortuary white colour, and further, the virtually closed eyes.
The Okuyi mask refers to a female ancestor. Its task is to connect the living to the dead, at the same time capturing their occult forces. The mask and its accessories (clothing and fly-whisk) go to make up some of the religious objects of the Mwiri society.
The masks from the south of Gabon represent the ancestral spirits and have no connection with the genies or spirits of nature. These masks are generally performed individually and with very carefully prepared staging. The mask, through its gestures and acrobatics must bring life to the image of the deceased or death itself. The masked dancer emerges on stilts from the bush at sunrise or sunset, but never in broad daylight. He is accompanied by several men that dance with him and musicians that set the rhythm. After he has finished his tour of the village, the masked dancer goes back to the forest where his wooden figures and accessories are hidden. Instrumental in incarnating a particular ancestor or death itself, these masks are not considered sacred in any way, are kept in a humid environment and are used for short periods of time and replaced as soon as they are no longer usable.
Whilst the Puno chose a hybrid form of mask, either realist( the representation of an ancestor), or ideal with normalized form (representation of death), the other people of the region using these white masks, made a completely different choice by creating highly idealized masks, virtual pictograms of faces. This is the case with the Togo and even more so with the Vuvi. The human traits are summed up by several marks in relief on an oval background, a triangle for the nose, double half circle for the eyes and some incisions for the mouth.
The white masks are famous throughout Gabon. Matisse and Picasso both owned Punu masks at the beginning of the 20th century and considered them as the finest in their collections. The biggest ones measure between 20 and 40 cm. They are hollowed out so that they can be held in front of the dancer’s face that looks out through the eye slits. These are strictly face masks, although many masks from Gabon are helm masks. The style is more naturalistic than in the north. They are characterized by oval or triangular faces with a suave and refined modelling, a single or double shell coiffure, always black and finely scored, a rounded forehead, half closed and stretched out almond shaped eyes with slightly hollowed eye sockets, a delicate and realistic nose, with carefully sculpted nostrils. The mouth has finely edged red lips, prominent cheekbones and a pointed chin. Some masks have 9 scarification marks in a diamond shape on the forehead and the temples in front of the ears. The dancers are raised up on stilts and are invisible underneath their fibre costumes. They hold the mask between their teeth with the help of a small wooden stick fixed to the back of the mask. Compared to the majority of other Gabon masks, which are quite expressionistic, polychrome and with angular form, these white masks from the south of Gabon are crafted with a certain realism but which, on closer inspection, is really rather idealized. The sex of the masks is uncertain. Although most of the information from the period mentions that the large majority of masks are feminine and some masculine, it is not easy to distinguish them formally.
The white masks participate in festivities. Their white colour is obtained through whitish clay that is the make-up used by the majority of the Gabon people. In the past, this make-up called ‘mpemba’ was also made from the ashes of the deceased person’s bones. These white masks appeared during events that were important to the community. The dancer, whose name was unknown to the public, was covered in a large costume made of raffia (today made from cotton). That is to say a cape with a vegetable fibre ruffle and trousers that covered the top of the stilts. The dancer kept the mask in place by holding the stick between his teeth, fixed like a horse’s bit to the inside of the object. Often, for safety reasons, the mask was also maintained in position by a tightened cord around his head. Perched on narrow stilts sometimes 2 or 3 metres high, the dancer menacingly agitated a fly-whisk in each hand. Finally, the dancer was accompanied by ‘extras’ ready to intervene in the case of a fall. The dancer needed to be both light and agile.
The number of scales in the central motif of many of these masks (4, 9 or12) alludes to the number of primordial clans among the Punu-Bayaca. The number 9 relates to the 9 original clans and the 9 migration routes. The distribution of the scales in a diamond shape signifies femininity whilst a square form signifies the masculinity. Given that many masks have a diamond shaped motif on the forehead and two square motifs on the temples, this may signify that these masks are in fact androgynous.
When the masks are black, the dark coating is made from crushed seeds mixed with palm oil. These masks may have served as training masks for novice dancers. They may also have been old white masks repainted black at the occasion of collective misfortune such as (epidemic, crime, witchcraft). They may also have had a judicial function and helped to uncover witches. They use short stilts, about 1 metre long. Black masks are rarer than the white ones among collections, perhaps due to their malevolent nature which may have made villagers hesitant to show them to Europeans.
Statuettes are few in number, have a rigid posture and tattoos on their faces.