In this research note I draw together a number of dispersed snippets of information about mask and figure carving among the western Kuranko of northeastern Sierra Leone. At its center is a description of a Kuranko mask I was able to photograph in April 1993 in the course of a research trip that took me northwards from the town of Masingbi on the road to Kono through the Kuranko chiefdoms of Nieni and Sambaia. I cannot claim to have carried out serious research into Kuranko masking or carving traditions, but there may nevertheless be value in putting my notes on seeing this particular mask and the observations I was able to make on that occasion in the context of what little we know of Kuranko masking from other sources: for example, the information in the registers of the Sierra Leone National Museum about masks described as “Kuranko” in its collections.
The Kuranko people occupy lands in the northeast of Sierra Leone and the adjacent western parts of the Republic of Guinée. Their language belongs to the central Mande language group and their ancestors seem to have arrived in their present homelands in successive migrations from the north from the sixteenth century onwards, following the break-up of the Mali Empire. In Sierra Leone they are often credited with bringing Mande notions of chiefship to the Temne. Many legends of the foundation of Temne chiefdoms, especially in Tonkolili in the center of the country, trace their beginnings to the arrival in the area of Kuranko hunters, and a number of chiefly families among the Temne are said to be of Kuranko origin.
In the earlier part of the nineteenth century Kuranko territory lay squarely across the main trade routes linking the states of the upper Niger to the coastal settlements of Sierra Leone on the one hand and those of Liberia on the other. The partition of the interior by European powers in the colonial period and the consequent redirection of trade to the colonial capitals bypassed the Kuranko and left them marginalized. This is perhaps particularly true of the western Kuranko in Sierra Leone, who occupy a mountainous area in the northeast of the country with few drivable roads and where transport is for the most part by foot, often across rivers that have to be forded or—a feature of the area—are spanned by suspension bridges made of vine creepers. Hence, like their Limba neighbors, they have had a reputation within Sierra Leone for cultural conservatism.
Very little has been written about Kuranko masquerades and Kuranko woodcarving in general. A recent publication, Masks of the Koranko Poro by Neil Carey (2007), is concerned exclusively with masks of the eastern Kuranko in the Republic of Guinée. Michael Jackson (1977: 236), the leading authority on the western Kuranko in Sierra Leone, states baldly that they have no carved masks. So the only published reference I know to woodcarving of the Kuranko in Sierra Leone is an article by Godelieve Van Geertruyen (1983), which describes two wooden masks that she saw and photographed in Bendugu, the main town of Sambaia chiefdom, in April 1979 (Figs. 1–2). Each was hanging on the outside wall of a house, beside the house entrance and in full view of passers-by. They were each about a foot long from top to bottom and roughly oval in shape, with a protruding forehead, straight nose, eye markings, and a hole for the mouth. A striking point of similarity was a spray of dark feathers coming out of the top of the mask. On one, a fringe of raffia was attached to holes around the rim. According to Van Geertruyen, neither mask had eyeholes and, although one mask extended backwards at the top and the other had a piece of cotton attached in the shape of a cap—which might have suggested they were meant to be worn—she was assured by their owners that this was not the case. One was claimed by its owner to have been brought from Guinée, but the second mask was said to have been carved locally by a man now dead. The masks had been in their owners' possession for a long time and provided them, they said, with mystical protection from their enemies. Each independently gave the name of his mask as mampirin.
In April 1993 a friend, Chernoh Njai, and I walked from Masingbi on the border of Tonkolili and Kono districts northwards to the town of Alikalia, and from Alikalia westwards through Bendugu to Bumbuna, through part of the southern Kuranko chiefdoms of Nieni and Sambaia. In the course of this trip we stopped at a village on the main Alikalia-Bendugu road where the owner of a mask which he called mampiring brought it out of his hut for us to see. He first of all laid down a mat on the ground outside the veranda of the house and then propped the mask up on another mat, leaning it against the low wall of the veranda (Fig. 3). The mask was wooden, perhaps a foot and a half in height, roughly oval in shape, with eye holes pierced through the flat plane of the mask. It had a protruding forehead, prominent straight nose, and a crest of dark birds' feathers bound to the top of the mask. There was what appeared to be metal cladding across the forehead, and the surface of the mask itself seemed to ooze oil. There were signs of insect damage. Its roughly hewn features and general form had much in common with masks worn by guardian spirits at male initiation among the Kuranko's Temne and Limba neighbors. According to Bundo Sesay, the mask's owner, the mask was ninety-two years old and had been carved by Korfung Niray of Sakasakala town in Sambaia chiefdom. The feathers on top were from a bird called kiringbongbong.
What was striking, however, was the behavior of the community when the masks were brought out. One by one, and so far as I could see quite spontaneously, the people of the village, men and women, came forward with great reverence and laid offerings on the mat in front of the mask: calabash scoops of rice, a bunch of bananas, onions, handfuls of groundnuts, coins, and paper money (Fig. 4). Gradually, a little pile of offerings accumulated on the mat. If anything was said, it must have been in an undertone, as each person bent down to add his or her contribution to the pile. After a quarter of an hour or so, no one else came forward and the ceremony, such as it was, came to an end. The mask and the offerings were collected up by the mask owner and taken back into the hut. In years of recording the presence of traditional masks in different parts of Sierra Leone, I cannot recall another instance in which a mask on its own, as opposed to when worn by a masker, elicited such a response from a group of local spectators. I have found as a general rule that people tend to be quite matter-of-fact when a mask is brought out for a stranger to see. They are often as interested in the latter's response to the mask as to the mask itself. If they admire the mask, it is in what seems to be a detached or even a secular spirit, not, as seemed to be the case in this Kuranko village, in a spirit of religious reverence.
There were some striking points of similarity between the two masks Van Geertruyen saw in 1979 and the mask I saw fourteen years later: for example, the general form of the mask, oval with a protruding forehead and roughly indicated facial features; the crest of dark feathers; and the name mampirin/mampiring. It is probably no coincidence that the masks were seen in the same part of Kuranko country, the village in question being only a few miles from Bendugu. Michael Jackson, whose remark about the Kuranko not having carved masks I quoted above, carried out his research among the Kuranko of Koinadugu district. Wooden masks may therefore be a phenomenon that is found exclusively among the Kuranko of northern Tonkolili. The owner of the mask I photographed explained to me that it was used in connection with male initiation and that it was worn by the person who led the boys from the village to the initiation “bush” or grove in the forest—a very different account from that given by Van Geertruyen's informants about the masks she saw. Closer to her account was another, much smaller—almost miniature—mask I had been shown the previous day in a village called Fangoia between Masingbi and Yiffin (Fig. 5). It was about four inches across and eight inches high. It had a prominent forehead, straight nose, and protruding blank eyes—the face otherwise flat and coming to a point in the chin. Apart from its size, it had some similarities with masks attributed to the Toma/Loma people of Guinée. But, as the photograph indicates, while it could be held up in front of the face, it didn't cover the face and couldn't be worn. This mask or maquette, which belonged to Fakulay Mara, the headman of the village, was also given the name mampiring.
The Sierra Leone National Museum in Freetown has a number of reputedly Kuranko masks in its collections. They are: 1962.24.81a & b, “Two Magpere masks”, according to the seller collected at ‘Nikekoro’ in Tonkolili District (figs. 11 and 12); 1964.39.01 (Fig. 14), another mask said to be Kuranko but without information as to provenance; 1964.79.01 “Preprema mask”, said to have been made “by Pa Kewulay, head of the male circumcision cult, at Ferawa [Firawa] Town, Koinadugu District (Fig. 6); and 1969.08.01 (Fig. 13), a “Mampiri” mask, described as the Kuranko equivalent of Kongolii (the Mende entertainment mask), from Kombadugu village in Tonkolili District, whose wearer had been the ‘late Pa Komeh'. In addition, there are two other masks, 2010.003.07 (Fig. 10) and 2010.003.12 (Fig. 7), labelled as “Preprema masks”, that have only just come to light in a recent audit of the museum collections, which were not recorded earlier in the registers and for which there is no information as to donor or provenance.
First of all, a comment about nomenclature. Mampiri, like Van Geertruyen's mampirin, differs only marginally from mampiring and we can take it to be the same Kuranko term. With slightly greater difficulty magpere could be reckoned to be a misrendering (or misremembering) of mampiring. Preprema, on the other hand, looks to be a different word entirely. This could reflect regional differences in terminology, for according to the museum registers the mampiri/magpere masks were collected in Tonkolili district: in other words, in the same part of Kuranko country as the mampiring masks described above. Of the specific villages mentioned, “Nikekoro” is probably Nikikoroh/Nunkekoro, which lies a little to the south of the Bendugu-Bumbuna road, near Keimadugu; and Kombadugu is a few miles further to the southeast. Firawa, by contrast, is in the northern Koinadugu district, where Michael Jackson carried out his research.
However, although the so-called preprema mask is accompanied by unusually detailed information as to provenance and use—it is recorded as having been made by Pa Kewulay “head of the male circumcision cult” in the village of Firawa and to have been worn “by the leader of the young initiates” in the initiation ceremonies—it is a recurring problem with descriptions of objects in the Sierra Leone National Museum registers that they are often hearsay: information or, it may well be, misinformation given by the seller. The seller in this case was Abu Bakarr Sesay or Seisay of 4 Walpole Street, Freetown, who was the source of around sixty objects in the museum's collection acquired between 1958 and 1970. A number of these are unmistakably genuine, notably four Temne Paramount Chiefs' crowns, the only examples of such objects in a museum collection anywhere. But in the case of Sesay's preprema mask there are grounds for scepticism. I mentioned that two other masks labelled as preprema masks had come to light in 2010 in the stores of the Sierra Leone National Museum in the course of an audit carried out as part of the Re-animating Cultural Heritage project. One of them bears a marked resemblance to the preprema mask sold to the museum in 1964 by Sesay, a resemblance close enough to suggest they had been carved by the same person. That is not suspicious in itself. The mask recently rediscovered has no donor recorded and it may well have been Sesay. What sets the alarm bells ringing is the second rediscovered preprema mask. For it is very like two other masks sold to the museum by Sesay that are described as Gongoli/Kongolii masks from Kailahun in eastern Mendeland (1961.46.167 and 168 respectively). One and the same person could hardly have carved a Kuranko initiation mask and used the same format for Mende entertainment masks, unless one supposes he was carving them to order for some trader in ethnographic artifacts such as Abu Bakarr Sesay, or unless Sesay himself was the carver. And now that one's suspicions are aroused, one notices that there is a family resemblance, albeit looser, between these three masks and the first two so-called preprema masks: the volumes of the masks are similar, with a heavy overhanging forehead, a thin line drawn across the brow, a flat broad nose around which the face is deeply excavated, vertical slits for eyes, and mouth and cheeks combined as a single swelling element around the lower part of the mask (Figs. 10–14).
There is enough here, surely, to raise doubts about whether Sesay's 1964 “preprema mask” is a genuine example of Kuranko woodcarving at all, despite the apparently detailed information regarding its provenance and use that is recorded in the Sierra Leone National Museum registers and that was presumably provided by the seller. The same applies to the name “preprema mask” itself, at least until such time as it can be corroborated from other independent research into Kuranko masking traditions.
Different accounts are given in the museum registers of the role of these Kuranko masks. The two magpere masks are described as “circumcision” masks, presumably a reference to male initiation. By contrast, the mampiri mask from Kombadugu is described as the Kuranko equivalent of Gongoli (Kongolii), the Mende entertainment mask, which provides comic relief and contrast to the more serious Sowei or Gbini masquerades.
In appearance the Museum's two magpere masks are rather similar to each other and most closely resemble the masks photographed by Van Geertruyen, being more-or-less oval in shape, roughly carved, with a prominent forehead, straight nose, pierced eyeholes, and the remnants of a crest of feathers (now rather thin and bedraggled) on top (Figs. 7, 10). The mampiri mask is larger and heavier, also oval but slightly concave, with a long, tapering nose, on either side of which eyeholes are indicated. It shows no signs of ever having had a crest of feathers (Fig. 8). Nor are there any feathers on the unprovenanced Kuranko mask, 1964.39.01 (Fig. 9). Instead there are strips of red-dyed cloth and metal ornament across the brow and down the side of the face. Physically, these latter two masks with their undyed raffia collars show some affinity with the masks worn at male initiations among the Temne and Limba, but their simplified enlarged facial features could also be seen as resembling some Kongolii masks—which may account for the description of the Kombadugu mask in the register.
There is what I think may well be a Kuranko mampiring mask illustrated in Mario Meneghini's Collecting African Art in Liberia and Neighboring Countries 1963–89 (2006). It is numbered 17 on page 52 and is described as a “Loma Mask” (Fig. 15). However, as Meneghini notes, the shape is rather different from typical Loma masks in converging steeply towards the chin, and it has two round but blind “eyes” carved in high relief under the overhanging brow. When purchased, it had a high crest of feathers wrapped around with beads. All of these are features that can be found in Kuranko mampiring masks, and the overall appearance of the mask seems to me much closer to those Kuranko examples than to the typical Loma mask. As is well known, many masks from Sierra Leone were carried over the border into Liberia and sold to Westerners in Monrovia, so it would not be surprising if a Kuranko mask from Sierra Leone had reached Meneghini by that route
Finally, the late Guy Massie-Taylor, whose outstanding collection of Sierra Leone art and artifacts formed between 1955 and 1961 was later acquired by Glasgow Museums, collected two wooden figure carvings which he said were Kuranko from Diang chiefdom in 1959. One is a mother and child figure with the baby on the mother's back (GLAMG: A.1985.13.ay) (Fig. 16). The face of the figure is large in proportion to the body and is represented somewhat in the style of the mampiring masks described above: flattish with a prominent forehead and simplified facial features. The second figure has no body to speak of, consisting of a large, slightly convex disk-like face supported by two legs (GLAMG: A.1985.13.bb) (Fig. 17). There are no arms or feet. Massie-Taylor commented that the art-forms (presumably in their extreme simplification) reminded him of those of the Toma/Loma in Liberia. He described them as “cult figures” of the Pangbai (Gbangbe) society, but admitted that little research had been carried out (at that time, in 1961) in this part of Sierra Leone, and gave no indication of their use or significance (1961: 8). There is a third Massie-Taylor piece, a small Kuranko anthropomorphic wooden slit-gong that he gave to the Sierra Leone National Museum in 1959 (1959.11.63). It was one of two small slit gongs given to the museum by Massie-Taylor; the second cannot now be found (Fig. 18). It has a head with rudimentary stylized human features at one end, the partly hollowed out midsection of the gong serving as the figure's body. Larger slit-gongs, anthropomorphic with carved heads at one end, are commonly found among their Limba neighbours in connection with the Gbangbani society that provides mystical protection from attacks by witches on those going through male initiation; smaller slit-gongs are carried in their hands and beaten by the initiates themselves. Since the museum register records that it was used by the “Kpangba” (Gbangbe) society, the Kuranko equivalent of Gbangbani, one may reasonably assume that it was used in a similar context and in similar ways.
These few fragmentary notes and observations on Kuranko figurative woodcarving are not meant to be a substitute for proper research into western Kuranko carving traditions. I offer them for what they are worth, as loose straws which someone undertaking such research might use to make the building bricks of something better. Since, for all I currently know, those traditions themselves may have been disrupted by Sierra Leone's descent into anarchy later in the 1990s and be in the process of disappearing and being forgotten, even my imperfect testimony from before that cataclysm may have its value.