Bissagos of Guinea Bissau
Wood, metal, rope, horns, glass eyes
12 inches wide, 29 inches high, 16 inches deep
35 1/2 inches high with iron base Bissagos of Guinea Bissau, West Africa, live on islands off the Atlantic named Bijagós or Bissagos (Bijagós Archipelego, discovered in 1456). During the 1400s and in the 16 th century, Portuguese Guinea was a major source of slave trade to South America. It was a part of Portuguese Cape Verde Islands until 1879, when it (Guinea Bissau) became a separate colony. Throughout time, the Bissagos have lived in coastal plains near rivers and estuaries, where farming (rice, palm oil, peanuts, pigs, timber) and fishing was good. Chief towns are Gabú, Oio, Cacheu and Bolama and the Bissagos peoples are Balante, Fulani, Mandjack, Mandenka and Papel who speak African languages, creole and Portuguese.
The Bissagos use bull masks (and sharks and swordfish masks) in ritual dances and divination/magic worship ceremonies. Their supreme god Nindo is always present, and this peaceful people mean to please Nindo. The Bissagos are organized with a council of elders, age classes and a priestess (oqunka) and a king (prior to 1900). By 1963, there were only about 9500 Bissago and most practiced animism and used a straw hut as a temple. Their god (Great Spirit) Orebok-Okoto was interpreted via a priest.
Sculptors voluntarily engaged in making bull masks for initiation rites and other worship ceremonies. The dancer places the bull headdress mask over his head and dances on all fours, as if he is a dangerous, untamed, wild cow, the symbol of those who have not yet been initiated. Sculptors of early Bissago bull masks like this one used green glass for the bull's eyes and metal, rope and real cattle horns to adorn the initiation or worship mask. The hieratic and monolithic statuary stands in contract to the great imagination and suppleness of form of the ceremonial objects.
See Jacques Kerchache, editor, Art of Africa, Harry Abrams, 1988 (image #862).