How to determine the age of a Kpelié mask?

No matter which tribe, we all confess that some masks that look freshly made turn out to be very old. And, and that is mostly the case, very old looking masks were probably made last year or even last month. It is extremely difficult and nearly impossible to determine an age of an african sculpture (Sure, we all know these online experts, who can tell you right away the date of origin just by an image of an object, without having a mask in their hands and without comparing it with other authentic masks. Honestly, do you really believe that? Or is it just what you want to hear?).


Since I published the three books and went online with this archive, no week without inquieries and questions about the age of masks and statues. In one of a hundred cases, I can determine a carver. But in all the other cases I can and will not say anything just by an image. Many objects look authentic, but to be sure an object has to be compared with other objects of the same genre in real. 


Yes, a provenance might be helpful, as long the information about the pre-owners is true and not faked itself. At least a provenance tells you the date, when a piece first entered a collection or got traded, but it still does not give you a hint, when, where and by whom it was actually made. So many times I see "masterpieces" with a list of owners, mostly galerists and mainly that famous old French Collection where the name is a big secret, because of "discrétion" (which stinks), and even the tribe is not known. I never saw any original shipping or custom documents that did proof, at what time a sculpture was imported. Do you?


Rarely an old photograph is the ultimate proof, where a person like Helena Rubinstein or a Man Ray photograph holds a piece or you can spot a sculpture in the back of such an image. But in the era of Fake News we are aware of what Photoshop and Gimp can do with an image. Am I too critical? Yes, I am, because there are too many possibilities to fake an object or the history in this demi monde scene. Again and again people contact me who spent outrageous amounts of money for crap. Like in life, think, before you buy an object, and don't believe. In case you have the slightest doubt, don't buy it. And compare, compare and compare again. And compare not just via an image, compare in real.

I said that many times before, the Kpelie mask of the Senufo tribe is not a rare mask. You still find old authentic masks for reasonable prices (to give you an idea: I do not spent more than € 1.000 for an undamaged mask made before 1945 from a known carver. Sure, there are breathtaking Christie's and Sotheby's prices, but these results do not show reality. If that would be the case, I would certainly life in Fort Knox).


In case of the Kpelié there are certain style elements characteristic for certain periods and regions. Old decoration designs surely got repeated till today. But there are differences. When Bolope was one of the carving centers of the Senufo before 1950, many masks did have a wing as a center piece on top (read my blog article: The Bolope Wing). It can not be clarified, what these dynamic shaped designs stand for, but this style feature is typical for that region and time. Having said that, it is surely possible that recent and faked masks can have this wing element. But during my years of researchings, I never saw a foul mask with this specific decoration. From my point of view as a designer, this wing is simply not interesting for an airport art mask which is made for sale. 


A stylistic sign for a recently carved mask are the triangular and semi circle shaped decoration elements on each side of a Kpelié, which show a plain surface and no carved decorations like rills. These masks don't even look pure and modern, these styles are typical for a time period from 1970 till today.


Typical for an old mask from around 1900 to 1940/1950 is, that they often look unfortunate, clumsy and crude. Ok, nothing easier than faking this too, but have a look and see the following examples of old Kpelié masks made by known and unknown Senufo carvers. The dating was possible only by comparing the masks with masks from the same origin (carver) and region (all the shown masks are from the west of Korhogo and south of the Mali border).


Karl-Heinz Krieg collected this mask carved by Melié Coulibaly (died 1952 in Landiougou). The time of creation is around 1920. The face is wedge-shaped with a pointy chin. The Kpelié does show a typical crude style for this time and region and the carvers's abilities.

The carver of this Kpelié is not known or documentated. It was collected by Karl-Heinz Krieg 1980 in Siempurgu. He dated this Kpelié around 1930, after a comparison of the patina, style elements, the wedge-shaped face and proportion, as well as the elaborated carving technique with other masks of that region.

Zanga Konaté died 1940. Karl-Heinz Krieg collected this Kpelié 1990 in Sonovelle. Comparing three other masks from Zanga, a Kpelié with a Tugubele pair on top was very similar in its elobarated style, we were able to date a time around 1920. An earlier carved mask by Zanga was not as fine as this. 

This mask was easy to determine, because more than 10 masks in exact the same style are known by Fossoungo Dagnogo. He died 1973 in the age of 79, so it possible to evaluate certain levels of his skills. 

Masks he made in his early years are flat, like this shown one from around 1940. The face is more graphically than sculptural.

Karl-Heinz Krieg did collect this Kpelié, made by a Koulé, 1969 in Nafoun. The mask is heavy and chunky, and not carved fine or elegant. The clumsy style, the featured elements and the patina are typical mask for a time before 1950. 

This Kpelié mask was carved by Kadohognon Coulibaly, who died 1953 in Bolope. At first view this mask doesn't look antique at all. There is a small damage on one of the decoration elements. Persumibly it is a reserve mask, that was owned and protected by the family over the years. The dating is between 1920/1930.

Songuifolo Silué, died 1986 with 72, is a very famous carver. In more than 50 years of working, he left a huge amount of all kind of sculptures. Karl-Heinz Krieg did a profound documentary about Songuifolo. We were able to date the time of origin from 1935 till 1939. Silué was already precise in his technique, but he hasn’t found his  final proportion. 

Sidekick information: Masks with damages.

Yes, danced masks can have damages such as broken decoration elements or parts, especially parts around the fixing holes, of the edge on the back of a mask can brake. That surely can be an indicator, that a mask was used in ceremony, but it is not a proof. Karl-Heinz Krieg wrote in his book "Kunst und Religion bei den Gbato-Senufo, Elfenbeinküste" in an own chapter, page 68, about the "ugly mask". After a mask received severe damages, the broken "ugly" mask will dance by the Plakoro, a character who got satirized. A damaged mask is not beautiful anymore and the audience will laugh.


Dear galerists, you and I, we all are interested in good and authentic pieces. Right? Very often you offered me damaged masks with the argument, that this is a sign of an authentic piece, because it shows traces of dancing. That might be the case, but it is no proof. Vice versa offering you a damaged mask, all of a sudden it has no value at all. So let's play fair. No?


Dear collectors, the best advice I can give: Simply avoid to buy a damaged mask!

Kpelié masks are not rare masks in Senufo ritus. Every small village still has a repertoire of up to 10 and more masks. Certain masks get replaced with a new mask of the same spiritual power every 7 years. These masks, often looking exact the same, are not copies they are replacements. These replaced masks then got sold, after they have no spiritual power. Some masks can be danced very often, others just got used once or stay even untouched (these masks are called reserve masks). All Kpeliés are sewed on tissues and covered in a cotton cloth to be portected from outside influences like intense sunlight, moisture or insect infestation. The black lye treatment does avoid these impacts in addition. No matter how long a Kpelié got stored, even old masks can look new.


After used in ritus, the deviner asks the Tugubele spirits, if a mask still has power. A Kpelié can receive new power by getting colorful paint (read my blog article: The Senufo and the use of color). But, keeping the fact in mind, that a mask is an admirable object that can bring money, very often a mask is spiritless and ment to be sold. And that is known and performed even before 1900. It can be the case that the carver or the family will get the sculptures back after they fullfilled their purpose. So it is possible that a mask, that was made in a time of 1920 to 1940 can still be found today in an excellent condition. Don't get wrong, that is not the normality, but it can be the case. Like everywhere, there are always exception cases.


I personally find the antique age of a Kpelié not that essentiell for an estimate or authenticity. I do collect masks made after 1950 and also recently carved masks too, because of the opportunity to compare. But I find the fact of the date of making very interesting in relation to the carver. Like in case of Fossoungo Dagnogo you can see certain levels of progress in an artists skill and his artistic awareness.


Markus Ehrhard

Note 1: After posting this article in Facebook groups dealing African art, I received certain critics, that I, as a collector (who had 8 semesters of art history as subject in my studies of design and did a total of six years of intense researching as author for three publications and a number of articles for a German tribal art magazine) doubt experts opinions. One post even got deleted. That’s right, I criticize certain experts on purpose, because I find the way of judging, evaluating and determine an object very difficult. Sure, there might be lifelong experiences and gained knowledge over a long time. Sure, that some sculptures stand out by craftsmanship, patina and artists expression. Sure, there are many objects, that cry out loud that they are fake. But giving an expertise or to determine an age or date of origin just by a photo or to say „Sorry, fake!“ without giving any proof of evidence why exactly this object should be a fake, or not to give a hint to comparing or documented objects, neither giving a source to a book, catalogue or to a website, is simply unserious. And I find it even more dubios, when these, and I set the quotes on purpose,  „experts“ sell sculptures. Bashing down others objects just to sell yours is...how to say that nicely...just not cool! 

Note 2: The ultimate and academycally certified proof is the radiocarbon method.

Copyright content and images by Markus Ehrhard