This mask has a complex structure.
The red mask depicts a boldly colored female face with scarification marks, thin slit eyes, a toothy mouth, and a braided coiffure. It's crowned by a superstructure depicting a long-haired female figure among large snakes, flanked by the smaller figure of a snake charmer. This type of mask, called seli, seri, or sauli in the Ivory Coast, was made in the mid-20th century by an unknown Guro master who carved every detail of the superstructure from a single block of wood.
Both the mask and the superstructure tell their own unique stories. So this mask tells us two different stories, but a third one is ready to emerge and become the most relevant of all when the mask is worn and "acted" during a specific seli, seri, or sauli masquerade.
Let's look at the superstructure. It depicts Mami Wata, the powerful water spirit worshipped in much of West, Central and Southern Africa (including the Ivory Coast) and the African-Atlantic diaspora. For some scholars, Mami Wata is the pidgin English name for Mother Water, the spirit or immanent goddess who protects the waters, guards the sea, and is at once a source of wealth, a healer, and a deadly destructive force. (This ambiguity and Mami Wata's metamorphic abilities are typical of water itself.)
The worship and depiction of Mami Wata is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the African diaspora, but she is not an African-born figure and her history is quite fascinating. It is believed that many African groups developed a variety of water spirit traditions and cults before first contact with Europeans in the 15th century. In subsequent centuries, especially the 19th, the various traditions coalesced under the prevailing non-African image of a beautiful, seductive, mermaid-like woman with long, black hair and one or more large snakes slithering up her chest (large snakes are symbols of divination and divinity in Africa). Mami Wata is often called "the Voodoo Mermaid" because she is usually depicted with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish.
In this composite imagery, according to Henry John Drewal, one of the leading scholars on the subject, elements of heterogeneous origins have converged and intermingled: representations of ancient, indigenous African water spirits, European mermaids, Hindu snake charmers, Christian and Muslim saints. Mami Wata is thus the result of cross-cultural exchange and syncretism, and demonstrates the creativity with which Africans incorporated foreign ideas and images into their own horizons of meaning. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, when the slave trade was at its height, «Mami Wata was reestablished, revisualized, and revitalized in diaspora, and emerged in new communities and under different guises, among them Lasirèn, Yemanja, Santa Marta la Dominadora, and Oxum. African-based faiths continue to flourish in communities throughout the Americas, Haiti, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere.» (Henry John Drewal, Mami Wata - Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas, see Bibliography).
The superstructure of this Guro seli mask conveys a powerful emotional image because throughout the 20th century, Mami Wata remained an object of worship with a tradition of priests and priestesses, cults, rites, and practices. Many 20th-century Guro seli masks show this type of depiction in their superstructure, such as the following two: