Bidjogo Sawfish mask, Guinea-Bissau

, First half of the 20th century

Wood, pigments, natural fibers

18 1/2 x 14 1/2 x 6 3/4 in. (47 x 37 x 17 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 those depicting wild bulls, sharks, hippopotami and sawfish. 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 sawfish is actually not a proper ‘mask’, but rather a dance crest that a dancer tied to his forehead, so it would not cover his face. The dancer would lean forward during the performance so the mask was in a horizontal position and sway his body from side to side. He would also wear a wooden dorsal fin attached to the middle of his back and probably carry a shield and stick with bells. Though the fish’s head is represented by only a simple triangle, the use of colored pigments and low relief sculpture, we can still recognize it as a wild sawfish. In most cases, a snout made of the real bone of a sawfish was attached to the wooden mask, as was likely the case in this mask as well.

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.