Bissagos Islands; Bidjogo peoples

Bull mask

, Second quarter of the twentieth century
Wood, glass, cow horns, fiber, pigment, H. 38.1 x W. 38.1 x D. 43.18 cm
Purchased with funds from Mary Jo and Richard H. Stanley, 2008.25


The historical significance of the ox for the Bidjogo peoples dates back to European encounters of the late fifteenth century, when Portuguese sailors introduced the animal to the Bissagos Islands in what is current day Guinea Bissau. Its prominent role gained momentum during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when warring villages stole stock from one another and foreign traders borrowed cattle on credit, all against the backdrop of a thriving slave trade that exacerbated existing social and political tensions. These tensions erupted in the mid-nineteenth century when French sailors refused to repay an important debt: the Bidjogo imprisoned them and France retaliated by attacking the inhabitants of Caravela, burning nearly all of its villages to the ground. Despite a strong resistance by the Bidjogo, the French eventually forced the deposed king to sign a treaty. Later in the century, Portugal colonized the region and in 1974 Guinea Bissau became an independent African republic.

Manratche, or initiation of Bidjogo youth within a hierarchical age-grade system, is one of the key illustrations of cattle’s vital role in the Bissagos Islands historically and today. In cabaro, a mid-level-age group that lasts ten years, male initiates celebrate the wild nature of post-adolescent life by donning a bull mask and imitating the animal’s aggressive behavior. A high infant mortality rate in the region means that young men do not always reach the cabaro age group. In these cases, young women may complete the initiation on their behalf. Initiation masks are crucial to the life-long goal of achieving the status of ancestor because the uninitiated are prohibited from creating objects of religious worship used for entering Ancaredo, an afterworld where the deceased becomes one with the Creator. 

This example from the UIMA collections, which has a white triangle at the center of its upper brow area, is called dugn’be or ‘the ox raised in the village’ and represents one of four types of carved wooden bull masks found throughout the Archipelago. It features real cow horns and glass disc eyes in addition to an upwardly pointed tongue the carver added to further suggest the concentration of wild energy captured during performances. Dancers wear this highly naturalistic mask over their heads along with a cylindrical “neck” (carved separately) that is attached by rope and rests on their shoulders. The full costume commonly includes a fiber skirt, belts, bells, and arm guards. In performance, male attendants hold a single rope strung through the nose of the mask to tame its beastly spirit. After their initiation is complete, performers often abandon these masks.

-Cory Gundlach, 2015


Suggested Bibliography

Bernatzik, Hugo Adolf. Im Reich der Bidyogo, geheimnisvolle Inseln in WestafrikaLeipzig: Koehler, 1944.

Gallois-Duquette, Danielle. “Informations sur les arts plastiques des Bidyogo.” Arts d’Afrique noire: revue trimestrielle 18 (1976): 26–43.

---. “Woman Power and Initiation in the Bissagos Islands.” African Arts 12, no. 3 (May, 1979): 31–35+93.

---. “OX MASK (DUGN’BE).” In For Spirits and Kings: African Art from the Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection. Edited by Susan Vogel. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981.

---. “Les masques bovines des Iles Bissagos, Guinée-Bissau.” Connaissance des arts tribauxbulletin 12 (1981).

---. Dynamique de l’art Bidjogo (Guinée-Bissau): Contribution à une anthropologie de l’art des sociétés africaines. Lisbon: Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical, 1983.

---. “The Bidjogo Peoples of Guinea Bissau.” Trans. by Joachim Neugroschel. In In the Presence of Spirits: African Art from the National Museum of Ethnology, Lisbon. Edited by Frank Herreman. New York: Museum for African Art, 2000.

---. “Bidjogo Sculpture.” In Sculptures: Africa Asia Oceania Americas. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2001.

Helmholz, Robert C. “Traditional Bijago Statuary.” African Arts 6, no. 1 (Autumn, 1972): 52–57+88.

Henry, Christine.  Les îles où dansent les enfants défunts. Age, sexe et pouvoir chez les Bijogo de Guinée-Bissau. Paris: CNRS Editions, 1994.