Frederick Lamp (in “The Royal Horned Hippopotamus of the Keita of Temne: A-Rong-a-Thoma” in Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 2005, pp. 37-53) writes at length about these rare masks. Called A-Rong-a-Thoma they were made exclusively by the Temne living in the town of Yele in Central Sierra Leone. The masking tradition was owned exclusively by the Kanu royal family in Yele and was the responsability of the ritual kingmaking association, Ragbenle, an association whose membership was restricted to paramount chiefs and their advisors. Although only made in Yele, the mask travelled throughout southeastern Temneland, in the areas controlled by the Ragbenle association who charged expensive fees for the right to hold a performance.
Although the form of the mask strongly resembles a hippopotamus, the presence of ram’s horns indicates that it represents a water spirit rather than an animal from the physical world. These spirits were responsible for the welfare and safety of the community and the success of the harvest, especially rice.
The A-Rong-a-Thoma mask is the most important of the spirits represented in masks of the Ragbenle. It appears annually in Yele at the beginning of the dry season and at other important ceremonial occasions such as the coronation of a paramount chief. Some of the songs which accompanied the mask’s appearance are of a sexual nature, and imply that the masked dancer will advance himself sexually as a result of his performance.
Lamp illustrates a photograph (see below) taken in the village of Maka by Northcote Whitridge Thomas, a British government anthropologist who conducted field research in Sierra Leone in 1914-15. It shows two A-Rong-a-Thoma masks, similar to the present lot, alongside one of the other accompanying Ragbenle spirit masks.
In addition to the Yale mask which was in Harry Beasley’s Cranmore Museum before 1938, Lamp also illustrates two of the few other known examples of the A-Rong-a-Thoma mask; one in the Fowler Museum of Cultural History (X81.227), formerly in the Barry Kitnich collection; and another in the Manchester Museum (0.878). Another in the British Museum (Af1969, 05.1) was acquired from Ernest Ohly in 1969.