Bidjogo shark mask, Guinea-Bissau

, 20th century

Wood, pigments, natural fibers

7 1/2 x 10 in. (19 x 25 cm)


About this object

The Bidjogo live on the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea Bissau. They are known from early chroniclers’ accounts for making daring raids in their huge canoes on ships along the African coast.

The Bidjogo create various types of zoomorphic masks, in which seemingly unconnected marine and bovine elements are powerfully combined in ceremonial headgear for the men’s association. While young boys might wear calf and fish masks, older uninitiated youths wear masks depicting wild bulls, sharks, hippopotami and swordfish. The masks are danced by boys and young men during the ceremonies that precede and follow the phases of initiation. Nowadays they also appear in secular contexts, on days that commemorate historical events, and when important people visit.

This mask in the form of a shark’s head is actually not a proper ‘mask’, but rather a dance crest that a dancer tied to his forehead, leaving his face uncovered. The dancer would lean forward during the performance and would also wear a wooden dorsal fin attached to the middle of his back. Other species of sharks, such as the hammerhead shark, were represented in masquerade headdresses as well. The head of the shark is naturalistically carved from hard wood and partly dyed black. The movable serrated jaw is attached with a string.

Arnoldi, Mary Jo, and Christine Mullen Kreamer. “Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head,” African Arts 28, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 22-35+97-98.

Hahner-Herzog, Iris, Maria Kecskési, and László Vajda. African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, Geneva(Munich/New York: Prestel, 1998): Plate 21 & Cats. 63+64.

Picton, John. “West Africa and the Guinea Coast. Cat. 5.142” In Africa. The Art of a Continent, edited by Tom Phillips, 477. Munich/London/New York: Prestel, 1999.