Masks were an important part of the tradition of different African tribes. These masks were associated with different kinds of rituals and ceremonies and were an integral part of the tribal culture. Here is a short account of their history.
The African masks are made of wood. The piece of wood used for making a mask is first allowed to dry. If the wood cracks, it is not considered suitable for making masks. A tool called ‘azde’ is used for sculpting the wooden masks.
The history of African masks can be traced back to Paleolithic times. These masks hold great importance in the African culture. In olden days, masks were used in many different ceremonies. These masks were made from metals, wood, fabric, etc. Their unique designs and most importantly, the idea behind making them has earned African masks an important place in famous art galleries around the world. Art history connoisseurs and collectors are equally interested in collecting such masks. The world famous painter Picasso came across an African mask in the year 1907 and was amazed by the design and meaning associated with it.
History of African Masks
African masks have quite a long tradition and many different meanings are associated with them. These masks are mainly used for depicting the moral and psychological characteristics of an individual. The Africans used to wear such masks in 3 different ways. Today, the details about history of African masks are available in bits and pieces. Here is an attempt to collate the useful facts on this topic.
• Most of the masks were used just like the regular face masks.
• Some of these masks looked like helmets i.e. they covered the face and head.
• Few of these masks were used only to cover the head.
• In the west African country of Nigeria, masks with animal-shaped headdresses were used by local tribes. The wood obtained from hollowed tree trunks was used for making helmet-shaped masks. The tribes of Sierra Leone made use of such masks.
• The Body Mask and Coon Mask were used by people from Tanzania and South Africa respectively. People used to wear the Body Mask along with a matching face mask; the Body Mask, also known as Belly Mask was carved out from tree trunks. The ‘Coon’ is a relatively modern mask in the history of African masks; this is because it was brought to use at the time of emancipation of slaves in 1838. Specialty of the Coon Mask is that it is hand-painted.
• Nowadays, the ceremonies associated with masks are not followed with the same fervor and enthusiasm as in olden times. The influence of different cultures, colonialism, civil wars, slave trade, etc. have altered the social fabric of Africa. Breakdown of traditional economies due to colonial rule has had an adverse effect on the food production systems and thereby, the culture of tribes of Africa. Although mask ceremonies are celebrated in today’s times, they are not held as frequently as it used to be in olden times. Loss of tribal identity is the main reason behind the decline in popularity of mask ceremonies.
The history and meanings associated with different types of African masks are given below. These facts should also help us understand more about the different traditions of Africa.
Cameroon Mask: The Cameroon mask which is carved from a single piece of wood symbolizes plenty and privilege; this is depicted with an open mouth and full cheeks of the mask. Some of the Cameroon masks also come with a sculpted headdress; the headdress depicts ‘spiders’ which stand for wisdom and privilege.
Mitsogo Mask: The Mitsogo Mask is characterized by a whitened face. The mouth, ears and nose are colored reddish-brown. The Mitsogo people to whom this mask belongs come from the mountainous regions of central Gabon. Ancestors of the Mitsogo people were the residents of northern Gabon.
Ngil Mask: People from the ‘Fang’ tribe used to wear the Ngil Mask. This mask was used to initiate new members into the male secret society. Along with initiation, the persecution of wrongdoers was also carried out during such ceremonies. The Fang people indulged into hunting and agriculture. Fang masks are considered to be of great importance in the history of Ghana.
Funeral Mask: This mask was used by the Bete and Yoruba people. The belief/purpose behind wearing such masks was to keep sorcerers (feared by the Bete) at bay. The Yoruba people of Nigeria believed that Funeral Masks embodied the spirit of the deceased ones. They also believed that a person wearing such masks could speak to the souls of the dead.
Guro Mask: The native people of Ivory Coast used to wear this mask. The Guro Mask represents the spirit of ‘Gu’. One of the characters from African tribal mythology, ‘Gu’ was the wife of a supernatural entity.
Baule Mask: The Baule Masks were used at the time of harvest festivals and dances. These masks also found place in funerals where they were used for distinguishing important guests from others.
Nyaba Masks: A Bete mask named Nyaba was used during funerals; history of this mask can be traced back to the period of Gla society.
Ligbi Mask: Ivory Coast is the origin of this mask. The Ligbi mask is characterized by a rectangular-shaped mouth and wings on the sides.
Goma Mask: Origin of the Goma Mask can be traced in what is today’s Democratic Republic of Congo. Inhabitants of the region surrounding the Lake Tanganyika used the Goma mask.
Punu Mask: The Punu Mask is associated with the Gabon people and is painted white. This mask represents the spirit of ancestors. The Gabon people used to wear this mask during celebrations and festivals. Use of Punu Masks in the masquerade dance was a practice being commonly followed.
Significance of African Masks
The African masks are generally used to represent the spirit of ancestors, deities and mythological creatures. Masks are worn during different ceremonies by dancers to represent these spirits and deities. People used to wear such masks on different occasions like crop harvesting, war preparations, weddings, initiations, etc. The dance ceremonies associated with masks were accompanied by the music played with traditional African musical instruments. Few other rituals during which masks were used are listed below.
• Honoring the kings
• Preparation of War
• Criminal Execution
• Rites of Passage
• Fertility Rites
The African masks, were used in rituals and also for assigning qualities like wisdom (Chilongola Mask), courage (Kamau Mask), strength (Runihura Mask), love (Thandiwe Mask), independence (Boipuso Mask), etc. to people wearing them.
The African masks are amongst the popular forms of fine arts in the world. An in-depth study of the history of African masks should help us understand more about the rich culture and traditions associated with different communities of Africa.
The importance of African Masks
African Tribal Art has a significant and mystical history. A very important part of that history includes the traditional African masks. The African masks are an important part of African ceremonies, rituals, initiations, celebrations and secret communities. The use of African masks typically includes song, prayer, and dance. It is for this reason that the mask can be viewed as an obvious work of sculpture art, but because of its function, it is also considered a performance art form. African masks are mainly crafted from wood. They are often decorated with paints, cowrie shells, colored glass, nails, plant fibers, horns and metal pieces.
The actual carving of the African masks and figures is a very deliberated act, which begins with the artist ceremonially purifying himself, than offering a prayer to the ancestors and asking for proper guidance from the divine forces. The object will then be inhabited by the divine force. The spirit of the tree used to create it, will be sacrificed, cut down and left for a couple days, so that the spirit of the tree can leave to find a new home. After this period is over, the artist will take the tree home and begin to carve it into a mask or a figure. If the tree cracks during this time, it can not be used .
Many individuals around the world recognize African masks as fine pieces of artistry. They are in high demand from art collectors and from those who simply enjoy beautiful art. For the casual observer, these African masks and other tribal objects can be viewed in museums all over the world.
The use of African masks has always had, and continues to have, religious, ceremonial and functional origins. When the African people celebrated, during crops harvest season, when preparing for war or during initiation passages, the African tribal objects played a central role.
African masks are generally representative of some sort of spirit, and this spirit is believed to possess the dancer as they wear the mask. This dancer is chosen either because they have been trained specifically for this purpose or because they have demonstrated abilities to extraordinarily communicate with the deceased ancestors. Masking ceremonies involves the chosen dancer speaking and hearing from the ancestors. This happens as the dancer goes into a trance like state. The purpose is often to receive the guidance and wisdom from the ancestors, or to tell a story or play out a message of the peoples history. The messages received, comes out of the dancer as utterances and moans. The translation is provided by a wise man, who accompanies the dancer and deciphers the grunts and utterances.
The African love of music, song and dance always plays a central theme in the ceremonies and rituals. These rituals and ceremonies may depict obviously the ancestors, but also the dead, the spirit of animals and other supernatural beings.
During initiation ceremonies, the african masks worn, depict an ancestor. The purpose would be to gain favor and to be received into the tribe as a vital member. N’tomo is the spirit of the boys. He helps the boys to learn and to keep the behavior thats needed to be a good member of the tribe.
African masks, ceremonies and rituals where once a very important and central part of African culture and life and it is in some villages still nowadays. As time has passed, modernization, colonization, heavy migration into the cities and out of the countryside and small villages have made these rituals and ceremonies rarer occurances. However, african masks still live on through use, new artists, museums and art collectors. They remain symbols of a time past, a rich history, and the religious and the cultural holdings of a people.