African masks are arguably the most recognized artifacts or craft items from the African continent. They will feature in many museums, art galleries and also craft for sale. The masks hold a very special place in African cultures. Despite their timeless existence, many people are not well-versed with the craft items. The following are 10 things you didn’t know about African masks.
1. Symbolic Value
Many people especially those not so familiar with African masks give special emphasis to the face value and aesthetic value. However, in the real setting, the symbolic value of the mask is more valuable and appreciated compared to the face or money value. A beautiful and well crafted mask may have less value than an odd or not-so-appealing one.
2. Only Carved by Specific Sculptors
The African masks were carved by a specific group of people. In fact, the number of sculptors was limited to family lines. A person who carried-out the activity was also a respected individual and held a high position in the society. In many cultures, sculpting some masks required special approval from the village elders, chief or king.
3. Skill Passed-on From One Generation to another
The skill or knowledge of carving the mask was never taught in school or in a social grouping. It was learnt through apprenticeship. In most cases, the skill remained within the same family or clan. This was done to ensure that the knowledge and culture didn’t get eroded or lost when cultural changes took place.
4. Specific to Function
Despite the masks coming in all manner of forms, shapes, sizes, colours and material, they all have a symbolic meaning. Each mask could only be worn at a certain time or season. Wearing it at the wrong function was considered taboo in many cultures. There are masks for rituals, marriage ceremonies, crowning a king or chief, spiritualism, war and more.
5. Spiritualism was the focal point
The art forms were created as a way of appeasing the spirits. A spiritual leader, rain-maker, traditional healer, sorcerer, or cult-leader always had a special mask. He would wear one during the ritual and also hang one at the shrine. Any other member was strictly prohibited from touching the mask. Coming into contact with one required special cleansing rituals and also attracted harsh penalties.
6. Dominant Shape
A closer look reveals that the different masks always share a similar shape. This is despite the fact that they will come from varied cultures that are widespread across Africa. Narrow and oval-shaped masks are the most common. Finding an art form featuring a circular, oblong or square shape is quite hard to come across.
7. Abstract Art and Realism
Rarely will you find a plain mask. They will always have figures, designs and patterns engraved on the surface. The mask itself will come in an abstract form such as a rough or unclear representation of the human head. However, the symbols were based on real objects found in the society. These included bird and animal motifs, celestial bodies, land features, farming tools and many others.
8. Wood isn’t the only material
Wooden masks are the most popular. Nonetheless, other materials are also used as well. In fact, in some societies wood was hardly used. This especially applies to tribes in the northern region of Africa. The masks may be crafted from clay, bronze, silver, reeds, stone, and fabric.
To an ordinary person, African masks will share similar characteristics. Well, this might be true to a large extent. However, unless you are familiar with the cultural practice, you’ll probably misread the role of the mask. For instance, in a Makonde carving popular in East and Central Africa, a wide chin and broad mouth is indicative of power and authority.
10. Specific material
Only specific materials make the mask. For instance, a wooden mask may only be carved from a certain tree species. It’s not so much about the durability or availability of the tree but the symbolic value placed on a specific tree.
The above list of things about African masks has certainly shed new light on the African art form. The information will go a long way in regards to appreciating this craft item. By paying close attention to the art form while visiting a gallery, museum, festival or any other location, you’ll discover more hidden/unknown facts about the masks.