Origins of African Masks
Africa possesses a long tradition of masking and it is believed that masks were integral to their culture long before the first century B.C. The wide variety of uses for masks, which included rituals of myth, creation, and hero worship; fertility rituals for increase; agricultural festivities; funerals or burials; ancestor cults; initiations, and entertainment, serves to prove that their usage has been extensive for hundreds of African tribes (Black 25).
Cave paintings on rock walls from Tassili, Algeria, Fezzan, Libya, and the Bushmen of South Africa are the oldest evidence for the existence of African masks. The Tassili images of dancers with masks were brought to public attention by the expedition of the French explorer, Henri Lhote, even though an Arab traveler, Ibn Batuta, wrote about the images in 1352. These famous paintings suggest that masks in Africa have been used for at least 4,000 years (Mack 39). Eric Herold estimates these images to have been created by nomadic herdsmen possibly between 3500 and 1500 B.C. (World 9). However, some scholars believe, as Segy has reported, that masks of animal heads were used by Paleolithic man at least 35,000 years ago (Black 44). Thus, there is much ambiguity about the origins of African masks, and there is also no evidence to show a continuous connection between these rock paintings and the African masks of the last two centuries, which are seen in museums and photographed for art books. In fact, many popular types of masks are only one hundred years old, while others are mysterious in their origins.
In attempting to date the oldest mask that we have from Africa`s past, Robert Bleakley has written:
But the oldest African artifact that is definitely a mask is the highly realistic copper mask of the oni (leader) Obalufon, from the Ife kingdom of Nigeria (12th to 15th century). The eyeholes and the holes in the mask for strings of beads or raffia attachments indicate that it was worn in some ceremony. There are also a number of Benin Kingdom bronze cast masks that date back to 18th century but are believed to show centuries of artistic development (World 13).The earliest three-dimensional tribal artifact known to have been produced in West Africa is a number of terracotta figures from the Nok culture in Nigeria. Through carbon-14 testing, these figures have been shown to date from circa 360 BC and parallel the arrival of the Iron Age in South and West Africa. (2)
The African World View
The traditions established by the westerner`s view of Africa have made it difficult to understand the significance of masking there. Beginning with the slave traders from the 15th century onto the colonial era, Africa was subjected to severe exploitation by the west. By the late 19th century, when European travelers came to explore the continent, prejudicial attitudes had been set firmly, such that the early observations of African masks by westerners provoked reactions like "horrible, ugly, devil`s grimaces" which promoted many misunderstandings about the use of masks. Richard Andree was one of the first ethnographers to gain an informed insight into their beauty and value in the 1890s and his work helped to alter some biased perceptions (Kecskesi 11). Also, avant garde painters in Europe, like Picasso and Modigliani, began to discover these masks in ethnographic museum collections, and used them as models for their own expressionistic formulations in painting and sculpture. However, western attitudes persist in seeing African masks as curious and imaginative artistic objects, ideal for hanging on a wall.
The African does not regard their masks as art. In fact, in most of the tribal cultures that make and dance in masks, there exists no word for art. A mask, for the African, is an instrument of ritual, and without the costume, dancer, music, gathering of the tribe, and sacred place, a mask is meaningless. This same inter-connected quality is part of the African way of viewing his or her world. That world is well ordered and communal in nature, unlike the highly individualistic cultures of the west. The art of the African is used in everyday objects, like pottery and clothes, and is not separated into museums. Andreas Lommel has written "Statuettes portray ancestors, masks represent spirits of dead forbears and decorative arts repeat the same motifs over and over again" (9). The African lives a more integrated way of life, and spirituality is a regular part of it, orchestrated by ritual enactments.
Ladislas Segy has written how the strong connection with nature, the group, and the soul, helps to define the African worldview (Black 18):
Fused oneness - Unlike the west, which attempts to control nature, the African is in harmonious connection with nature and at one with it. Through participation with ritual, myth, and masks, the African interacts with nature, whereas the Westerner contemplates it as beauty.
Group identity - We are extremely concerned about our individuality and personal rights; the African is more traditional, and concerned with community rights; certain people in the country of Niger do not have a word for religion - it exists so intimately in their lives that the separate thought of it does not exist.
Concept of the soul - The African believes that everything in nature has a power within. Even concepts like fertility or the wind have this indwelling spirit. In fact, African culture is animistic, believing that inanimate objects possess a soul. Masks were therefore not just symbolic; they were "spirit traps" which contained the soul for the benefits of the living. Even across death, the African believed that the ancestor`s soul takes part in the family`s life.
The harmonious interconnection between the African and his/her community and environment make masking a necessary element of spiritual life, for it brings those elements more closely into view. It also illustrates a basic distinction between the African and Western worldviews.
Myths played a valuable role in advancing the worldview of African peoples and helping to maintain traditions within each tribe. Many of their stories contained explanations of how the tribe began or how the world was created. Others offered details about the history of the tribe or how they migrated from various areas to their present location. There were also stories of ancestors and heroes, explanations of the ceremonies they enacted, and even lessons on farming and crafts (Black 8). These myths enabled each generation to prepare the next for leadership and community service, and they were handed down through a vibrant oral tradition, which was centered on the griot, or storyteller.
The Maasai tribe from East Africa is unique in that they lack the ancestor cults found almost everywhere on the continent. This has much to do with the fact that the Maasai are nomadic, and hold no belief in a personal survival after dying - two reasons that explain why they do not bury their dead. This world view is clearly reflected in the myth of Le-eyo, their great ancestor, who was supposed to say, when a child died, "Man, die, and come back again; Moon, die, and remain away" (Cotterell 248). However, when the next child died, he inverted the magic phrases accidentally, and proclaimed, "Man, die, and remain away; Moon, die, and return again." His mistake caused the moon`s monthly movements, explaining the lunar cycle, and it also made death permanent, defining the Maasai belief in the afterlife, and giving parents an explanation to the question, "Why do we die?"
Ritual and Masks
It may be difficult for 3rd millennium students to imagine the impact for tribal peoples of seeing images of ancestors and heroes in carved masks. We are so accustomed to a wide variety of visual sources for our daily information. But Africans living in tightly organized communities, like the Chokwe in Northern Angola, did not have printed sources as well as televisions, movies or web sites. Since the only way to make the spirit world visible was through mask impersonation, Africans believed deeply in the rituals that they participated in, and their strong religious devotion was firmly connected with their public ceremonies. Segy wrote that the African people found social cohesion with their ritual participation, and were able to ward off the "existential dilemma" that each individual faced:To an African, a mask is more than merely a facial covering. It includes the costume and adornments worn on the body, and represents the embodiment of a tradition and guarantee for continuity. (Lommel 9)
Thus, the purpose behind the vibrant use of myth, masks and ritual for African communities is therefore, the development of social cohesion. This purpose of bringing order into a world that seems in disorder exists for many cultures worldwide and modern ones as well.As insecurity is the primary characteristic of the human condition, by means of masked rituals the Africans believed they changed the chance element into a reassuring certainty. (Black 9)
In his work, Masks and the Art of Expression , John Mack offers a good example of a masked ritual from the Batchokwe of Zaire, who perform this circumcision ritual for boys from 13 to 15 years of age. Instruction begins months prior to the event. The boys learn that they are not ready to participate in the tribe because they are impure (called "idima"). The months of training and education are mixed with taunts that are believed to help the boys mature and strengthen their discipline. At the main ceremony, the idima are taken through the village by a masked figure and finally brought to the "place of dying" where the circumcision is performed (17). An unusual part of the ceremony features the throwing of a burning coal into the air, during which time the surgery on the initiate is quickly performed. After the ceremony, the boys return to a special hut away from the village where they each unmask the masked figure and take vows of secrecy. For up to possibly one year, they heal and learn more secrets, like singing while bathing to warn others of their presence, that will make them full participants in their society (18). The secretive nature of their "bush school" is so strict that if a boy dies during the time, his mother will not find out until the group`s return, and will be informed of his death by being handed a piece of darkened calabash (19). When time arrives for the boys to leave their confinement, the boys burn their costumes and wash at the river, and are joined by the masked figure who again leads them back to the village where they perform the dances they have learned, and proclaim their adult names. The boys are welcomed with gifts and accepted as full members of the Batchokwe (20).
African masks themselves are some of the most fascinating works in all of human history. They represent a humanistic searching for the world of spirits, yet each tribe shares unique distinctive qualities. The majority of African masks are wood, and mask usage is clearly tied to areas where wood is available. The African believed the tree possessed a living spirit and he needed a diviner to conduct purification ceremonies and sacrifices to appease the spirit of the tree and ask it to transfer itself into the mask which would also increase the power of the mask. Often, the carver`s preparations included "fasting, purification, and abstention from sexual intercourse" (Tribal 14). There are symbolic meanings to the type of wood used and to specific trees. Though softer woods are easier to shape, they don`t survive as long as the harder woods, which are heavier to wear, but much of the ritual experience is tied to the hardship endured by the dancer who may often dance in masks taller than his own height. Surface treatments vary with different groups also, with many cultures using oils, plant sap, or mud to give the mask a shiny patina that helps it to stand out in the sun and distinguish it as a spirit face. Holes for raffia attachments are made with a heated awl, and are often done by a different craftsman.
The carving of the masks are mostly done with a large long-handled axe known as an adze. The African carver is able to acquire amazing accuracy with this large instrument, and even though he has double-edged knives and chisels for fine detailing, the majority of the work is handled with the adze (Tribal 14). To some extent, the use of better technology is not welcome for something that has ritual purpose.
Various cultures specialize in different materials for their masks - Basketwork in the Congo, Bronze masks of the Senufo, or metal surfacing among the Marka. African carvers have also been resourceful in the many materials they might include on the mask, like "sheet metal, fur, animal teeth, cock`s feather, human hair, textile, glass, cowrie shells, or glass beads" (Tribal 12). In the last decades of the 20th century, more imported materials have been used in African masks, and we often see some tribes incorporate very contemporary materials like acrylic paints and plastic necklaces (Ottenberg 121).
The masks in Africa are usually tied to the face with bands or held there by a scarf or a wig made of raffia. Some have a horizontal peg inside for the dancer to hold between their teeth. Costumes can be made with palm leafs or various local fabrics or leather. Some have used bark cloth, but not to the degree that Oceanic masks have.
The carver of African masks usually holds an esteemed position in his community. He learned his craft after years of apprenticeship to a woodcarver (or in many cases a blacksmith), or may have been the member of a woodcarving family. Some cultures have a caste system specifically for mask makers.
Only in last few decades have names of the specific carver been recorded for individual masks, which seems to indicate that the art traditionally was a collective process without creative individuals. However, contemporary scholars have regarded this notion as obsolete, even though present mask makers in Africa do mention that they gain the respect of their community by making masks (Hahner-Herzog 21).The carver`s status differed according to local custom ... The Bambara made him live in an isolated quarter of the village ... Among the Senufo, the carver belonged to the lowest caste ... Sometimes, among the Baule, a talented carver became well known and people outside his village ordered works from him ... For the Dogon, the carver was a cultural hero. (Black 36)
Most African masks are face coverings, but they also include a wide variety of helmet masks and headdresses. The stylistic features of African masks reveal an astonishing variety. They may be naturalistic and clearly outline Negroid features; they may be expressionistically shaped into idealized features; or they may be wildly abstracted into frightening expressions of animal or human expressions. "Fully abstract masks are rare, but most move toward abstraction" (Hahner-Herzog 20). Segy also writes of the tendency toward expressionistic style: "The African mask is an enlarged face, dramatized to the utmost in stylized, abstract images to achieve spiritual intensity" (Speaks 67).
Africa is often considered to be the continent with the longest tradition of mask making and the most vibrant in its diversity of styles. There are more than a thousand different tribes throughout the continent, but only a few hundred tribes use masks.
The following section presents only a fraction of the ethnic groups that make and use masks in Africa. They are meant to inform about the myth, practices, and styles of tribal masking and lead you toward researching the area in more depth. For examples of the masks, visit the Nyama Website.Africa is an enormous continent and its size and diversity are reflected in the huge variety of masks made there. But two broad areas are important for masks - West Africa and the Zaire Basin/Equatorial Africa. Africa north of the Sahara no longer has a living masking tradition and has gravitated towards Mediterranean and Islamic culture. (Teuten 10)
The Dogon are possibly the most well developed mask makers in Africa. They have a great tradition of statues as well as masks, and their works have been long sought after by Western artists and collectors. The Dogon live in Mali on the Bandiagara escarpment east of the Niger River, in villages of thatched roofs and mud brick buildings that seem about to slide off the walls of stone. Just as dangerously, they survive on a small amount of millet supplied from their low-grade soil and small rainfall (Teuten 12). It seems almost natural that sympathetic magic would be an essential part of their survival system.
In many of the northern areas of Africa, the influence of Islam has eliminated mask making, due to Mohammed`s ban on imagery and the Islamic preference for decoration over any idolatrous use of visualization. However, among the Dogon, who have had strong ties with France, its former colonial authority, the Islamic influence has changed but not ended the practice. This has caused Dogon masks to retain a bold simplicity in its use of geometrical patterns.
Dogon Kanaga masks reflect these influences while also showing the reaching toward divinity, for they consist of a superstructure with two horizontal bars that represent the sky and the earth. During the Dama funeral ceremonies held every 12 years, the Kanaga dancers "rotate their upper bodies from the hips and swing the masks in wide circles. They imitate Amma, the creator god, who brought all beings to life by opening a door in his chest [to] spread the life force evenly through the cosmos" (Beckwith/Fisher 286). Other masks are used by the Awa society for funerals and rituals to commemorate the soul of an important member of the tribe several years after his death. One very distinctive ritual is the Sigi ceremony and its fifteen feet high Imina Na snake masks, held every sixty years to honor the original ancestor, Lebe (Teuten 13). The myth tells how the tribe prayed to Amma, the high god, to have the dead Lebe freed from his aging body, and after they had buried him a few years, the Dogon exhumed his corpse to find that he had become a snake, which always followed the tribe (Cotterell 248).
The Bambara tribe, which consists of more than one million members, lives near the Dogon, and also has a great tradition of semi-abstract masks with large superstructures. The Komo and the Kule societies produce all their masks and travel among the Bambara, making masks that form the distinct style of each tribe (Bleakley 9). Their Chi Wara masks are headdresses of antelopes used for ritual dances by male and female couples to promote fertility and agriculture. Their myths tell of this water spirit, who "magically transformed weeds into millet and corn and taught people to do the same. He also taught them the value of hard work. Thanks to Chi Wara, the people became excellent and prosperous farmers" (Minneapolis).
From Sierra Leone to the Ivory Coast, the Poro Society oversees "magical medicine" as well as all matters relating to politics, education, or economy, but the Sande society for three tribes there (Mende, Temne and Sherbro) is the only African secret society owned and danced by women, and they still practice today (Mack 43). In addition to conducting initiations, the Sande provides girls with a separate education in domestic skills, sex, singing and dancing, while the boys learn farming, weaving, trapping, drumming, and singing. The initiates follow a silent masked dancer in all their movements for three years, until the girls finish and prepare for marriage. The mask used, called Sowei, is carved by men from a full tree trunk with bulging round forms to represent the ideal fullness of a rich woman (Teuten 19). The rituals of the Poro and Sande societies reveal a strong value of self-determination among these West African tribes, which is clearly reflected in the Mende myth of Ngewo, their sky god. In the beginning, Ngewo told his peoples to come to him for anything they needed, but after being besieged by constant requests, Ngewo moved away to a place where he could still influence the tribes, but remain remote enough for mankind to become more self reliant (Cotterell 252).
There are a number of tribes in the Ivory Coast who are prolific at mask making for aesthetic as well as ritualistic purposes, most notably the Baule, Guro, Senufo, Dan and Yaure. Their styles are very similar and often the only distinction among tribes are the tribal scar marks and hair styles, with the exception of the Senufo masks which are characterized by horns that look like legs projecting from the bottom of the face (Teuten 22).
Dan is a general term for all the tribes living in the area of east Liberia, the west Ivory Coast and southern Guinea. Their masks, when worn by a dancer in a masquerade, are not symbols or representations but literally are the mountain spirits, speaking to the tribe with words that only an interpreter can translate. The masks are so highly prized that they were once the motivation for military conquests, even though a captured mask could not be used by the conquering tribe until generations later (Teuten 19). The masks function in various ways, for circumcision, entertainment, stilt dancing, miming, illness, judgement, and fire prevention (a masked dancer makes sure that all cooking fires have been extinguished and is allowed to beat women who have left the fires on). The most important ones represent spirits from the bush, and are used by judges in presiding over civil and criminal trials (Bleakley 11). The naturalism of Dan masks makes them very popular with Western collectors. The image of an idealized human face with carefully polished surfaces over a smooth, domed forehead is clean and bold to Western values, and the basic interplay of round and angular shapes so characteristic in African art may explain the fascination that Dan masks had for early 20th century artists in Europe (Speaks 176).
The Federal Republic of Nigeria has many tribes, each with a distinctive style, but as Segy has pointed out, all possess a complexity in their art works that reflect their detailed social organization and mythological deities. The long tradition of masking in Nigeria is proven by the many archeological discoveries of items from early historical periods, like the Ife kingdom, which was the spiritual home of the Yoruba by the 11th century, the Nok kingdom, which has produced many terracotta heads that were prototypes for wooden masks, and the Benin Kingdom, which thrived from the 11th to the 19th century and became renown for its bronze castings and ivory masks. These Benin masks realistically portrayed the faces of members of the ruling family, but they were often surrounded in tragic irony by the carved heads of Portuguese, who came first to Africa to trade in ivory and slaves (Speaks 188).
In the delta area of the Niger River, the small tribes of the Ibibio mix both smooth naturalistic styles with grotesque images of diseased sufferers in the ancestor rituals of their Ekpo society. The masks are unique with their raised scarification marks known as keroids (Teuten 26).
Further north and east of the Niger, the Igbo (Ibo) live in small villages, but use a wide variety of masks for harvest ceremonies and funerals. Their white-faced Mmwo masks are used for the Maidens festival and feature males dancing in masks with elaborate clay coiffures that represent beauty in adolescent girls. The dances occur for special occasions like marriages or first births (Teuten 26). The color white represents the spirit world for many African tribes, like the Fang in Gabon, who ironically treated the first Europeans with respect, for they believed them to be ancestral spirits. One eastern Igbo tribe, the Afikpo, lives on the west banks of the Cross River and uses many complex masks with geometric patterned superstructures in their elaborate masquerades. One distorted facemask called Okpesu Umuruma (which means, "frighten children") is combined with a sack and a long gun to represent ancient slave traders (Ottenberg 48). The Northern Igbo in the Enugu district conduct a six month festival that features the return of the masked dead (see THE ODO FESTIVAL ).
On the other side of the Cross River, the Ekoi make masks with pronounced naturalism, using antelope skin to cover the mask, and human or animal teeth and hair. Though we lack conclusive evidence, it was believed that up til the 19th century, the skin of slaves were used to create the look of a human face, which certainly would have contributed to their fascination with realism (Bleakley 24).
West of the Niger River, the Yoruba number more than twelve million and live in many towns throughout Southwest Nigeria. Their masks reflect their over 1,700 gods, headed by Olurun and his various messengers, the Orisha, who embody natural phenomena like thunder (Shango), the harvest (Oko), and war (Ogun). Eshu, who appears in many masks, was a mischievous god, sometimes called the Yoruba devil, and became infamous for his spreading conflict between men, like when he devised a hat with a different color on each side, so that when he walked between two farmers in their fields, it provoked an argument between them about what color hat that stranger was wearing (Cotterell 237).
A number of secret societies make and use masks, like the Gelede society which maintains a long tradition of performance that is designed to protect the community from illness, and also "honor the creative and dangerous powers of women elders, female ancestors, and goddesses, known affectionately as our mothers" (Howell). Thus, the dances of the Gelede feature many pairs of male and female partners doing steps that were derived from the ancestors. Their style is naturalistic with scar marks for each particular group, but they often have complex superstructures with images from everyday life (Teuten 25). The Egungun society rituals honor the ancestors and make use of full costumes to cover the performer. Hahner-Herzog, Kecskési and Vajda have documented the elaborate Epa festival masks that have spectacular sculptures of Yoruba peoples mounted on a helmet and intended to be unwieldy for the boys who need practice in wearing them. They not only dance but also do giant leaps with these masks that are over five feet tall and weigh seventy pounds (43).
In the Gabon Republic, south of Nigeria and the Cameroon, the Fang live in dense rain forests surrounded by over 3,000 species of vegetation. Their reliquary figures and masks are highly refined and sensitively crafted, even though they are used to enforce the law (their Ngi society works as village guards using the masks) and exorcise spirits (Bleakley 26).
The Mahongwe of the Congo used masks as funerary artifacts around a grave to guard the bones of their ancestors. These masks are distinctly carved with an elongated concave face that resembles a half-moon and comes to a point at the chin. It was originally believed that one of these masks was an inspiration for Picasso in his famous painting "Les Demoiselles d"Avignon," which seems very credible but scholars have found that these masks did not show up in Europe til long after his 1907 masterpiece (Hahner Herzog 73).
In the Congo, the European/Christian influence is still evident in the arts of the area. This influence dates back to the earliest Portugese explorations of Diego Cao in the 1480s and the constant contact with Europeans due to the trade in slaves and ivory. The Bakongo tribe, for instance, at the mouth of the Congo River, creates some of the most naturalistic masks in Africa, with realistic touches like filed-down teeth (Black 209).
Further up the Congo River, the Bateke people produce masks called Kidumu, which began only in 19th century. This circular, flat mask is the most abstract of African works, with geometric designs symmetrically arranged vertically and horizontally. When the Congo received its independence from France, this type of mask became produced, for it reflected the uniqueness of this tribe`s aesthetic vision (Hahner Herzog 77). Supposedly a face is represented, but it is believed that the suggestion is a trick to fool those not yet initiated into the tribe (Teuten 32).
The Bapende of Zaire have a long history of strong ancestor roots, shrines and masquerades, so their masks represent ancestors and a variety of character types. Their performances are entertaining, but also effective for maintaining social control in the community. Their masks are known for their sensitivity and the triangular conceptualization in their style. Olive Riley, reflecting the poetic refinement and sensitivity of one Bapende mask, described it with precision:
Between the Kasai and Sankuru rivers, the Bakuba peoples, who include nineteen different tribes, use masks for funerals, initiations and courtly ceremonies. Some rituals recreate the origins of the Kuba Kingdom with the use of Moshambwooy helmet masks, which combine fabric, wood, rafia, cowrie shells and beads into an assemblage that may have influenced European Cubist artists (Black 223). Legend holds that the bwoom mask recreates the bulging forehead of the pygmies, who are believed to be the ancestral people of the land (Kuba). Timothy Teuten describes the legend of this mask as an attempt for social control:Long, stylized eyebrows, half closed, watchful eyes, clearly defined cheekbones, and a thin lipped, triangular mouth above a sharply pointed chin, all contributing to an expression of detached observation which weighs the potential worth of the newly initiated members of the tribe. (72)
Some Bakuba masks are used for law enforcement, while others are carved for theA water spirit once haunted the country, inflicting blindness and fatal illnesses on the inhabitants. In the time of the king Bo Kyeen, a man called Bokomboke met the spirit in the forest. Frightened, he returned to the village and recounted to the king what he had seen, but was unable to describe the being in words. The king ordered him to build a hut on the edge of the village, and with some barkcloth, the skin of a bat and feathers he made a strange costume, which he painted in yellow, black and white. The king saw the costume and had an idea. He disappeared for so long that people wondered what had happened to him. One night, a strange being appeared in the capital. Wearing a costume imitating the spirit moshambwooy, it was the king frightening the inhabitants. Then the king hid the costume in the bush. Next day the king reappeared and expressed great astonishment at the story of the visit of the strange being, but claimed to know the reason for the stranger`s visit. It was moshambwooy come to see if there were any querulous women or disobedient youths to be punished (36).
On the border of Tanzania and Mozambique, the Makonde has become the best known of East African tribes to produce masks because of the skill of their carving. They still have dances at the finish of initiation rituals to welcome young boys and girls back to the village after a long stay in the secluded "bush school." In celebration of the reaching of sexual maturity, the dancers, in pairs, perform the motions of sexual intercourse, but without any arms or legs moving (Teuten 42). But the images of the masks are ancestral spirits and instruct the newly initiated to remember their past leaders and respect their new roles and responsibilities in the Makonde tribe (Hahner-Herzog 99).
In this chapter, we have learned how Africa uses masks for a
wide variety of events ranging from ritual ceremonies to social
without a religious connection. Masked dancing can serve
educational purposes, passing on important cultural traditions,
event may be purely theatrical, providing entertainment for the
community. But regardless of its function, the African
becomes powerful only when it takes action with costumes, music,
and storytelling in front of a gathered audience. Like
it only exists in motion as a community interaction.