African traditional masks
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There are an enormous variety of masks used in Africa. In West Africa,
masks are used in masquerades that form part of religious ceremonies
enacted to contact with spirits and ancestors.
The Yoruba, Igbo and Edo cultures, including Egungun Masquerades and
Northern Edo Masquerades. The masks are usually carved with an
extraordinary skill and variety by artists who will usually have
received their training as an apprentice to a master carver - frequently
it is a tradition that has been passed down within a family through many
generations. Such an artist holds a respected position in tribal society
because of the work that he/she creates, embodying not only complex
craft techniques but also spiritual/social and symbolic knowledge.
African masks are also used in the Mas or Masquerade of the Caribbean
African masks are made from different materials: wood, bronze, brass,
copper, ivory, terra cotta and glazed pottery, raffia and textiles. Some
African masks are colourful. Many African masks represent animals. Some
African tribes believe that the animal masks can help them communicate
with the spirits who live in forests or open savannas. People of Burkina
Faso known as the Bwa and Nuna call to the spirit to stop destruction.
The Dogon of Mali have complex religions that also have animal masks.
Their beliefs are in three main cults - the Awa, cult of the dead, Bini,
cult of communication with spirits and Lebe, cult of earth and nature.
These three main cults nevertheless use seventy-eight different types of
masks. Most of the ceremonies of the Dogon culture are secret, although
the antelope dance is shown to non-Dogons. The antelope masks are rough
rectangular boxes with several horns coming out of the top. The Dogons
are expert agriculturists and the antelope symbolizes a hard working
Another culture that has a very rich agricultural tradition is the
Bamana people of Mali. The antelope (called Chiwara) is believed to have
taught man the secrets of agriculture. Although the Dogons and Bamana
people both believe the antelope symbolises agriculture, they interpret
elements the masks differently. To the Bamana people, swords represent
the sprouting of grain.
Masks may also indicate a culture’s ideal of feminine beauty. The
masks of Punu of Gabon have highly arched eyebrows, almost almond-shaped
eyes and a narrow chin. The raised strip running from both sides of the
nose to the ears represent jewellery. Dark black hairstyle, tops the
mask off. The whiteness of the face represent the whiteness and beauty
of the spirit world. Only men wear the masks and perform the dances with
high stilts despite them being “female” masks. One of the most beautiful
representations of female beauty is the Idia’s Mask of Benin. It is
believed to have been commissioned by a king of Benin in memory of his
mother. To honor his dead mother, the king wore the mask on his hip
during special ceremonies.
The Senoufo people of the Ivory Coast represent tranquility by making
masks with eyes half-shut and lines drawn near the mouth. The Temne of
Sierra Leone use masks with small eyes and mouths to represent humility
and humbleness. They represent wisdom by making bulging forehead. Other
masks that have exaggerated long faces and broad foreheads symbolize the
soberness of one’s duty that comes with power. War masks are also
popular. The Grebo of the Ivory Coast carve masks with round eyes to
represent alertness and anger, with the straight nose to represent
unwillingness to retreat.
Today, the qualities of African art are beginning to be more
understood and appreciated. However most African masks are now being
produced for the tourist trade. Although they often show skilled
craftsmanship they will nearly always lack the spiritual character of
the traditional tribal masks.