|Bamana Komo (Komokunw)
|I currently do not have a Bamana Komo mask in my collection
Additional examples and information below for reference purposes
|A Group of Komo Dancers. Komo Association, Guinea
Photo Barbier-Meuller archives
From the fantastic book: See the Music, Hear the Dance
|Two masks displayed in front of a Komo shrine.
Komo Association, Minianka, Mali.
Sketch: Philippe Jespers
Below is a great, in-depth article on the Komo headdresses
Examples of Komo headdresses below the article
You Haven't Seen the Wild Beast: a Manding Headdress (Komo Kun)
By Frederick Lamp
Blacksmiths, who make the beastly, "exquisitely horrific" Komo Kun, are a special class dispersed throughout the territory of the Manding and
other neighboring groups (McNaughton 2001:175, 182). Because of their work with fire and iron, they are credited with the ability to harness and
channel dangerous power for communal good. Only the blacksmiths may hold leadership titles in Komo and make the headdresses (McNaughton
1988:130), while those of the musicians class, the jeliw, are excluded (David Conrad, personal communication, 2001).
The headdress incorporates several forms, most prominently the head of a beast (wara), often cited as the hyena (McNaughton 1979:32), who
figures in the narrative of Komo, for example, in the opening initiation ceremonies when the members chant: "The [boys entering initiation] are
going to die, one after the other; the old hyena has called no one; welcome to all; let them be spoiled! Let them be shaped! Old hyena! Because
you have called no one"—which is to say that the initiates have come to face the ordeals of Komo on their own volition and not at a command from
the great hyena spirit who oversees Komo (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:255). The hyena spirit or "the old hyena," alludes to the qualities of reason and
intellectual capacity, and thus raison d'etre. Testimonies given to Brett-Smith (1997) go further to suggest that the open jaws of a wild and
frightening animal are only a metaphor for the headdress's real and esoteric identity as the for¬bidden and rapacious vagina which the boys will
soon encounter after initiation.
The headdress is associated with the night in several ways. The hyena is a scavenger in the night. Dieterlen & Cisse (1972: 253-55) have
described the annual Komo ceremonies, in which one of the songs performed has to do with "the divine, ancient hyena," here given the name,
Turn yourself around [dance].
Son-in-law of the holder of the black gold! [i.e. profound knowledge]
Turn yourself around [dance].
Here, the hyena of the night is revealed to be the word, or manifestation, of Faaro, the great serpent spirit of creation, who possesses the
profound knowledge necessary to Komo. "Turnaround" (/ye/ema) suggests his capacity to transform himself into Faaro (David Conrad, pers.
comm., 2001), and accompanying the sound, the initiates dance a zigzag movement suggesting that of the serpent.
Most data indicate that the Komo Kun was danced primarily during the night. Each headdress may have a personal name, and, although there are
many names, one such name was recorded as "The Darkness of the Town Gwaranko" (Gwaranko-Dibi) (McNaughton 1979:30, 40). Dieterlen &
Cisse (1972:277) recorded a ceremony in the darkness of night, in the obscurity of new moon, without the faintest firelight. But generally it was
danced by the light of a great bonfire called "the fire of Komo" (p. 236-237). In the three extant field photographs, however, the Komo Kun dancers
appear in daylight, and this confirms data in both McNaughton (1988) and the earlier work by Dieterlen and Cisse (1972). Two of these
photographs may have been staged for the photographer (Hahner-Herzog, et al., 1997; Goldwater 1960). In Zahan (1974), the single Komo
dancer is clearly with the initiation group in the wooded grove.
Acquisition of materials to apply to the headdress is personalized by the blacksmith creator, in the manner of a "recipe," so that no two
blacksmiths' work would be the same or would function the same way. He searches for the right horns and quills, symbols of animal aggression,
and emblems of the blacksmith's wisdom. He may dig a new well in order to obtain fresh unblemished water to produce medicines to attach. Herbs
would be sought fey-particular effects, mixed by the smith, and reduced to desired forms. A chicken may be sacrificed to ensure success. The
feather of a vulture may be clustered at the top of the headdress. The resulting accumulation of materials is regarded as a dalilu, a prescribed
combination of spiritually powerful items designed to effect a result (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:48; McNaughton 1988:133).
The heavily encrusted surface of the headdress is produced by applying a mixture of black clay, leaves, powdered minerals, powdered bone,
masticated millet, sacrificial blood, and possibly other undocumented materials. Periodic blood sacrifices enrich the encrustation. Germaine
Dieterlen & her Bamana collaborate/. Y. Cisse (1972:51), believed that these ingredients symbolized the order of the universe and were seen to
reflect the humid matrix of creation and to effect human reproduction. A very old Komo headdress would have accumulated a spectacular array of
added materials and thus would have acquired extraordinary power (nyama). The Manding compare old headdresses with new during Komo
performances, with song lyrics such as: "... you've seen many Komo—You haven't seen the wild beast." (McNaughton 1988:135, 138).
The Komo headdress is concealed in extreme secrecy by Komo members, who are forbidden even to speak the name before uninitiated persons.
The headdresses function not only as a dance headdresses but as shrine pieces, placed upon an altar upon which blood sacrifices are made.
This has been described in detail by Philippe Jespers (1995:41-44) for the Minianka. On the path to the sacred forest to the west of the village lies
a circular clearing whose entrance faces east to catch the first rays of the rising sun; this is the site of a small sacred house. Inside, on a platform,
a number of headdresses are placed, "upon which one 'prays' and 'sacrifices' so that they always appear entirely covered with dense, coagulated
coats of blood, giving them their deep black colour." The "things of Komo," are said to be alive and to "talk among themselves," which utterances
are manifested in the appearance of cracks, coagulated blood, the slipping of parts, and other subtle signs of change in movement. Here, on the
altar, the headdresses are referred to as "pieces of the body," and one addresses them as "you who go to the foundation."
Brett-Smith (1997:89) in her argument for a sexual reading of the headdress form, relates a report by Dieterlen that the initiate is forced to lick the
headdress and the metal hooks that the masked dancer carries. The initiate swears that he will place Komo ahead of everything else in his life,
even his father and mother. If the metaphor is correct, this would be a highly prohibited act, as cunnilingus, and even looking at the vagina, is
forbidden to a man.
Thus in his transgression, the initiate is placed at the mercy and fully within the domain of Komo.
The costume of the Komo Kun, called the "sheath of Komo," consists of a loose cotton gown, gathered and sewn in accordion pleats. This cloth
was customarily laid over a barrel-shaped wooden framework consisting of seven hoops. To the outside of the cloth gown, apparently sometimes
pierced through and fixed to the wooden framework, are attached the large feathers of the vulture, or, in some areas, especially around Segou,
the guinea fowl, chicken, or hornbill. The cloth gown, itself, in the case of some of the most sacred Komo headdresses, was said to have been
sewn together with twenty-two bands of strip-woven cloth (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:51-52; McNaughton 1979:31; McNaughton 1988:135-136). In
addition, costumes are often covered with amulets, to heighten the spiritual power. So important are these attachments, that one of the names the
Bamana give to the costume is "the largest amulet" (seben-den-kunbaba) (McNaughton 1979:31).
When the headdresses were taken out of the shrine to dance, they are said by the Minianka to "rise," and one addresses them at this point as
"you and the conversation." This refers to their relationship now to the sky and the source of prophetic speech (Jespers 1995:44, 51, 53). Before
putting on the headdress, the dancer would hold it in his hand, saying, "I cannot carry the force of the world," referring to the composite elements
of the headdress and to the complex of sacred signs symbolized by its feathered costume. Taking on the headdress and costume, the dancer is
said to be "penetrated" by sacred knowledge. He trembles, enters into a trance, and ceases to be of this world. This trance possession lasts
several hours, after which the dancer gives, in a muted, unintelligible voice, the "news of the universe" (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:53-54).
As described by Jespers (1995:49-50), the costumed performers arrive at the entrance to the village, advancing with small steps, turning
occasionally, descending into the village with "great majesty." Each dancer demonstrates his power through the theatrical acumen of his dance.
Some may dance on stilts. Some claim the ability to spit fire, which would dramatically light up the night. Others spout water, or stamp on the
ground forcing a fountain of water to spring from the spot (McNaughton 1988:142-143). The movement can be acrobatic and swift. The dancer
may hoist the headdress up high at the end of a long stick thrust up through the costume (Henry 1910:148; McNaughton 1979:41; Monteil 1924:
271). The tie formed by the headdress and its costume connecting earth and sky dictates that the dancer should never leave the ground, but
should keep both feet on the ground, pressing down with knees slightly bent, but facing the sky with the headdress. When a pair of masked
dancers approaches an initiate, they turn to each other and crouch down in perfect synchronization, spreading their huge costumes (Jespers
The music of Komo included "dramatic and sometimes ominous or eerie drumming," using a variety of drums including the large jembe
(McNaughton 2001:175). Charry (2000:8) calls it "threatening and private." A whistle, forged in iron or copper, would be held by the masked
dancer and sounded throughout the dance. The whistle represented the whistling of the wind, "the voice of the cries of the wind," and its sounds
ranged from the quietly melodic ("the voice of the murmur of the universe," i.e.. birth) to the shrill ("the voice of the mourners, the cries of the
universe," i.e., death) (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:53, 272).
The sound has been described also by Henry (1910:147) as a noise that freezes one with terror. Accompanying the dance, musicians would strike
up a cacophony of sounds on cymbals, iron gongs, whistles, and trumpets, symbolizing, according to Dieterlen & Cisse (1972:237), "the children
of the voice of God."
In 1949-50, inquiries undertaken by Germaine Dieterlen and Youssouf Cisse (1972:52-54, 215-217, 236-237, 252-255, 272-274, 277-282, 290-
293) resulted in an elaborate account of the initiation, including the acts of the costumed dancer. Songs sung and orations given by the dancer
have to do with invocations to Komo spirits ("good spirits of the birth givers of Komo"—p. 272), protection for children ("I will not let them [the
sorcerers] 'eat' anyone's child today"—p. 277), and prayers for the dead ("Faaro is before you; Faaro is behind you ... This is your salute"—p.
290). McNaughton (1988:141) recorded a song in which the Komo masked dancer appears to offer comfort to the unfortunate and to warn the
smug and privileged ("Fortunate slave [whose luck will change] do shut up [be patient], All mornings don't bleach the same way").
Accompanying the costumed performer is always the bard, or interpreter, and spiritual representative, who was known as the "Mouth of the Beast."
The Komo performer speaks in a dramatic and unclear voice, and uses a kazoo-like voice disguiser. The sound has been described also by
McNaughton (1979:33) as an extremely loud bellowing. For a new performance, he may compose new songs containing responses to questions
previously put to him by those seeking his counsel. Following the song he may stop and speak to address the crowd. Whether singing or
speaking, his voice is distorted: at times he would tremble, going into a trance while uttering unintelligible words. His words would then be rendered
again in common language by his bard (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:236-237; McNaughton 2001:175-176; 1979:39). Colleyn & Clippel (1998:144-147)
transcribe an extensive song delivered by the costumed performer and translated by his assistant.
During Komo performances, all uninitiated persons must hide indoors. The exclusivity of the Komo dance and prohibition against spying in the
night by non-initiated persons is expressed in a chant delivered by the masked dancer and repeated by the initiates, who have had a glimpse of
the headdress in action just before dawn (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:274):
One who is not permitted to see Komo,
If he looks anyway
And goes to recount this back at home!
[Even] one who is at the end of his life would not recount this at home
The Earth is lightened (Dawn breaks), and I have seen the Komo.
During one particular step of Komo initiation, the nineteenth, as reported by Dieterlen & Cisse (1972:236-37), the Komo Kun is said to appear in a
series of acts. This step was entitled "children of the folded wings" (referring to the wings of the vulture). The Komo Kun headdress and costume
was hoisted on its pole for the ceremony, and at one point the praise singer took up the chant of Komo, referring to the sacred vulture, curiously,
by a man's given name, Zan (or Nzan), and emphasizing how powerful his descent (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:237):
Zan of the powerful wings.
Zan of the powerful hooves.
The great bird with four wings!
The bird who scratches [the earth] from the sky
Would dig a well in the rock if he descended.
The costume of vulture feathers recalls a sacred narrative in which the vulture was credited with bringing Komo knowledge from the spiritual world
to earth (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:236). The vulture, a daytime creature, is the guardian of "white knowledge," the clear, open, knowledge of
spiritual origin. As an eater of carrion, the vulture is regarded as inoffensive. As the most imposing bird, physically, the vulture is the patron of
royalty, of war, of hunting, and especially of the traditional priesthood and of death. It is seen as oblivious to the vicissitudes of life on earth
(Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:27). As the bearer of spiritual knowledge, the vulture is consulted by diviners, and its feathers on the Komo costume
allude to the Komo performer's power to divine (McNaughton 1988:137).
In the annual Komo ceremonies of sacrifice to the spirits, the spokesman of the event proclaims his fidelity to "'the old hyena who, it is said, is at
the origin of everything among the Bamana: the 'old beast' is in the night; the night is obscurity; what is this obscurity, if not the secret, the mystery
of original void and the history of the final void.'" The chief of Komo responds: '"What you have said is reasonable. The hyena is a 'great thing' in
the affairs of Komo....'" As the vulture feasts on carrion in the day¬time, it leaves the remainder to the hyena, at night, who leaves nothing, "'not
even a trace'" (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:265).
The hyena, in sacred narrative, is a fisher, splashing about in the sacred sea of the great overseer of the universe and the earth, the "master of
water," Faaro. As a "fisher," komo, it gives its appellation to the ritual association itself, in the view of Dieterlen & Cisse (1972:26). The hyena is
said by the Manding to devour sorcerers (who are often previously blacksmiths), and the blacksmith (presumably an honorable one) is thought
able to become a hyena. The hyena is said to possess enormous knowl¬edge about the bush and its secrets (McNaughton 1988:137). A timid
animal that feeds normally on carrion, the hyena is credited with an extraordinary sense of smell and of foresight. As a nocturnal creature, living in
holes in the earth, the hyena has become, for the Manding, a symbol of secrets of "black knowledge," of the knowledge of fertility, maternity,
religion, dances, and songs (Dieterlen & Cisse 1972:26)—in essence, the business of Komo.
Article by Frederick J. Lamp
From the FANTASTIC book: See the Music, Hear the Dance (a book I highly recommend!)
|Headdress: Head of Komo (Komo Kun) Manding/Minianka, Mali/Guinea Komo Association
c. Early 20th century
Wood, various animal horns, bird's skull, fiber, grasses, porcupine quills,
encrustation, mirror, antelope horns (restoration), H. 36.9 cm
Gift of Robert and Mary Gumming, Baltimore
In the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art 1983.79
(ex Harold Malt, Coconut Grove, Florida; ex Daniel Levandowski)
From the book: See the Music, Hear the Dance
|An example and some information from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
|Komo Helmet Mask (Komokunw)
Bamana, Mali, 19th–20th century
Wood, quills, tusks, bird skull, organic material; H. 25.4 cm (10 in.), W. 23.2 cm (9 1/8 in.), L. 85 cm (33 1/2 in.)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Morton Lipkin, 1961
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
|In Mande culture, Komo headdresses such as this helmet mask (komokunw) are repositories of great ritual power generated
through prescribed combinations of elemental matter. When worn in performance, these works have the potential to transform their
owners into omniscient social commentators.
For the Bamana, a people of Mande heritage, the basic form of energy animating the universe and fueling all activities, whether
natural or mystical, is known as nyama. The ability to control, direct, and channel nyama toward specific ends requires a command
of the most potent knowledge conceivable. Those who possess this knowledge, which is referred to as "sorcery," are regarded with
ambivalence, since they have the potential to greatly benefit others or do them great harm. Anyone motivated to do so may pursue
the acquisition of this knowledge by devoting the time, effort, and resources necessary to learn from a master. Most people,
however, rely on the services of experts (donnikelaw, literally "persons who know") to direct nyama on their behalf by diagnosing the
cause of their problems. Through divination, and by fortifying them against danger with protective amulets, these specialists assist
the people they advise to live up to their full potential.
Within societies of Mande origin, members of nyamakala groups—families of specialized professionals, such as blacksmiths—are
innately endowed with such abilities, which they further refine over the course of their extensive apprenticeships. Blacksmiths
(numuw), as individuals who master the technically demanding process of ironworking, manage enormous quantities of nyama by
transforming iron ore into implements and artifacts. Thus, their abilities may be directed beyond overseeing metallurgical processes
to include mediating endeavors that require the same profound insight into managing power, such as healing and divination. The
association between blacksmiths and divination is alluded to in a Bamana oral narrative concerning a smith named Fa Sine Dyara,
who served as the valued counselor to the leader Sousan through his ability to interpret the "language of the birds." Smiths may
practice a variety of divination techniques, interpreting signs such as the movements of snakes, configurations of thrown cowrie
shells (kolonw), and designs drawn in the sand (cenda). They often confirm their findings in one method by verifying it through a
second one. Ultimately, they may be able to visualize definitive answers to the inquiries of community members while participating in
a Komo society performance.
Komo is an initiation association led by blacksmiths, whose mandate is to promote the general well-being of the community and to
protect society from harm. Teenage boys, after they are circumcised, are eligible to join Komo and become participants in its secret
affairs. During meetings restricted to members, high-ranking officials (komotigiw) perform dances while wearing wooden helmet
masks (komokunw). These dances respond to petitions from the community for various kinds of help, ranging from divining the
cause of a family's crop failure to correcting a problem of infertility. Individuals are called to positions of Komo leadership by a spirit
with whom they enter into a relationship; they will subsequently create or inherit a mask that is also invested with spiritual power. In
order to divine while dancing, the performer concentrates on combining his nyama with the nyama of this spirit and that of his own
mask. Through a sort of free association, answers to the problems that have been presented to him come into his mind, and during
a performance he reveals these solutions to his audience through the medium of song.
The Komo mask is an artifact that portrays wisdom and erudition through its complex arrangement of materials and serves as a
deterrent to antisocial acts through its monstrous ferocity. The juxtaposition of dissonant organic elements creates a wild,
inscrutable appearance that defies Bamana aesthetic ideals. New Komo masks are assembled by their owners in a process that
takes four to six weeks. Once the proper wood is selected for the understructure, the carving takes place within an afternoon. The
komotigiw must subsequently gather the work's herbal contents and hunt for its animal components, and then prepare them,
following a series of recipes (daliluw) that will empower the work to accomplish specific actions. Knowledge of the various daliluw that
define the composition of an individual Komo mask is necessary to control the work—knowledge that is available only to the mask's
maker or owner. The unrestrained, raw power projected by the design of such works correlates with the intensely intellectual
exercise in applied engineering that went into making it.
The work shown here is in the classic form of a horizontal sculpture of a saurian beast, with a dome-shaped forehead and with
horizontal ears carved on either side. Additions of animal elements extend this sculptural form at both ends. At the left, horns that
curve upward, attached to the tips of the ears, refer to the power of the bush and evoke the strength and endurance of the animal
world. They suggest danger and aggression and are associated with knowledge through their use as medicinal containers. At the
right, the mouth is depicted with jaws open, exposing serrated rims of sharp teeth and terminating in a snoutlike form, on top of
which a bird skull with a long, narrow, pointed beak has been attached. In Mande culture, speech is considered a potent form of
nyama, and the enormous maw represents a reservoir for vast quantities of powerful oratory. Patrick McNaughton has suggested
that they are modeled after the jaws of the hyena, a creature perceived to be keenly intelligent and immensely knowledgeable about
the natural landscape.
The bird skull that juts from these jaws evokes several metaphorical associations. Birds are linked with the notion of wisdom. In their
airborne position, they mediate between humans and the sky, thus making accessible the omniscience of the heavens, which they
communicate through a special divinatory technique. Their representation in Komo masks, whether through bundles of vulture
feathers or through a skull, as in this example, makes specific reference to the mask's oracular powers. The skull has been covered
with quills from a porcupine, another animal that is a symbol of wisdom and the preservation of knowledge. The quills themselves
refer to weaponry such as darts, arrows, and bullets used by Bamana hunters, suggesting their power to combat sorcery. The
skull's surface is a crusty layer of sacrificial matter combined with earth of uneven and crackled consistency. Continually added to
over the course of the work's lifetime, this incrustation has gradually obscured the mask's features while enhancing its power to
dispense clarity and anticipate future events.
|Komo Society Headdress
Mali, Bamana (Bambara)
Feathers, quills, horns, and encrustation.
Height: 23 in. (58 cm)
Gift of William W. Brill. 89.15.15
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art • Cornell University
Typical of the Mande association masks, the sacrificial material seen in the encrustation
on the surfaces of this headdress (also known as a helmet mask) is an indication of its
connection with one of the three main Bamana power societies: Komo, Kono and Nama.
This specific headdress is typical of the Komo society, which functions as the custodian
of tradition and is concerned with all aspects of community life-agriculture, judicial
processes, and passage rites. The Bamana, an ethnolinguistic group of the upper Niger
region of Mali, are distinguished by their indigenous method of writing and a remarkable
system of metaphysics and cosmology, encompassing associated societies, prayers,
myths, and rituals. The Komo is a secret power association of priests, knowledgeable
elders, and blacksmiths that forms the central Bamana social institution. Members of the
blacksmith clan are born into the Komo society because of their ability to employ the
forbidden power of fire to transform matter from one form into another. Its masks and
headdresses are of elongated animal form decorated with actual antelope horns,
porcupine quills, bird skulls, and other objects as vessels of power. Blacksmiths of the
Komo society wear the society headdress or komo-kun during a dance to invoke nyama,
the force that activates the universe.
|Sotheby's May 14, 2004
Lot 29, headdress, Bamana, Komo Society, 25 inches
A challenging and fascinating work is Lot 29, a Bamana, Komo Society headdress. The
catalogue describes it as "warakun, of highly abstract form, supported by a wood base
hollowed at the center and pierced at the rim for attachment, with four projections at
one end and supported an elaborate, architecture superstructure of multiple
interlocking rods, horrns and magic bundles with hair fringe; heavily encrusted
surface." This lot, which may not be the Frank Gehry of Tribal Art but could qualify as
Deconstructivist, has an estimate of $18,000 to $22,000.
|Above is a photo of a Komo headdress and costume that was in a
gallery in Paris for the Parcours des mondes in 2006.