If masks could talk what  would they tell us about the people that made and used them? We explore the uses, significance and mean of African masks.

Choosing an African Mask

Are you an interior designer with a commission for African Art? Are you looking to furnish your home? Perhaps you’re an avid collector of African Tribal Masks? We aim to have something for everyone. Choosing a hand carved African Mask is not to be taken lightly. Buying a face mask as for your home or collection takes time. Of course It needs to fit in with your décor, but remember that African masks have their own significance and history.

The Role of Masks in Traditional African Culture

african dan maskThe mask represents an integral part of African Culture. They are still used in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and other African states where the tradition continues.

To this day traditionla African masks are used for ritual and ceremonial purposes. The mask you select may have taken a leading part in the cultural life of a community. On the other hand it is more likely to be a product of the African arts and crafts industry.

Masks are fascinating symbols with complex functions and associations to animals. They represent the spirits of ancestors and tell of secret societies and collective rituals. An African Mask is a symbol of prestige and of forces beyond the understanding of everyday material life. Some are used in initiation ceremonies to mark the passing from youth into adulthood. Other masks from Africa bestow fertility, either to crops or hopeful parents. Most importantly, they mark identify; a sense of belonging to clan, tribe or specific tradition.

African dance and tribal masks are worn mostly by men. Feathers, shells and ornate costumes create a sense of “other-worldliness”. The masked danced or associated ritual often marks the passing from one age group to another (what we might call an initiation ceremony). Some masks facilitate the passing on of cultural mores and traditions (often referred to as secret societies). The more striking the image created by the mask and its wearer- the more resonant the messages are that are shared.

Masks as “Primitive Art”

Punu mask GabonMasks are not unique to Africa. Go to the Carnival of Venice in Italy and see many thousands wearing masks. Yet the European perception is that the African masking tradition represents primitivism. In contrast masking traditions in Venice are considered the height of sophistication. Never mind the fact that the Italian’s reintroduced the masking festival largely to attract tourists.

The african artist who carved the bask you are thinking of buying is probably as faceless as a person wearing a mask. Most are unknown in the West.
European Art dealers and tribal art pundits often refer to African face masks as “primitive Art”. This is perhaps a legacy of European bigotry. African tribal masks are not primitive, and neither are the cultures form which they originate. Picasso and Matisse took inspiration from Africa's masks but the irony is that the “cubist form” is seen as “high art”. The masks which served as inspiration remain relegated to the category of “primitive art”. Such bias was not doubt justified by previous European stories of cannibalism and other such nonsense taking place in Africa.

The truth is that Africa is the cradle of civilization. African masking tradition provides a rich wealth of aesthetic and cultural tradition. How often to we think of Egyptian Pharaonic art as African? We digress, let’s get back to masks; we’ll explore African art bias another time perhaps…

The Meaning of Masks

Tribal masks are a lens and a metaphor for a variety of concepts; extolling aspirations, providing warnings and relaying sacred lore. Masks provide communication channels with spirits and ancestors. They are doorways into concepts beyond the realm of everyday physical existence. Ritual, memory, hopes and fears are all communicated by these amazing artworks.

Africa is the world’s most diverse continent and the masks of different cultures have different meanings. It’s difficult (and an oversimplification) to try and sum their meaning. Every mask has a personality or its own. In wearing a mask, the dancer hides their own identity and assumes another. It’s a kind of channelling designed to dismay, teach, provoke and instil wonder.
In the west we tend to view a mask for its aesthetic beauty only. We often have little or no understanding of the original significance of the mask. Of how, in its original context, it would have been feared or loved. Revered or imbued with supernatural powers.

The Diversity of African Masks

kifwebwe maskWe can’t even begin to sum up all the different kinds of masks to be found in Africa. There are over 300 languages spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Language groups divide into smaller tribes and clans. The diversity and corresponding material culture is immense.

The Dogon people of Mali have over 60 kinds of masks. The Mende people of Sierra Leone, the Makonde of Tanzania and the Baga of Guinea favour helmet masks. These masks sit on top of the head. Cloth masks, wood masks, bronze masks and natural fibre masks can be found.
Designs are as varied as the mind can imagine.

Many mask are inspired by animals. Antelopes and primates are common sources of inspiration. Mythical animals such as the Chiwara from Mali serve as another source of masking tradition. Kifwebe masks from the DRC (formerly Zaire) are clearly “cubist” in their form. The Makonde masks of Tanzania look somewhat scary. They tell stories of enslavement and oppression by foreign invaders.

African masks are a window in the soul of humanity. They are storytellers and keepers of secrets. We still have much to learn about this fast-dwindling tradition. Perhaps time is running out as the skills to fashion this art form dwindle. And as these traditions fade, so too does the rich cultural tapestry of the continent. As you build your masks collection consider that Africa has long been plundered and assimilated by our anodyne western consumerist culture.
Mask have a million stories to tell and will, no doubt never give up all of their secrets.

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