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 since from the ancient times. 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 monetary 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 learned 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, colors 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- Animal Masks
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.
Types of African Masks
Masks have come to be defined based on how they are worn. The most popular among them are:
These masks are very popular across different African cultures. The masks are the regular ones that people wear over their faces and tied back with either a rope or something else to keep them firm. They are not necessarily made in the image of the faces of people as they can be made in the forms of animals.
These masks are very popular among women and they are sometimes used for the purpose of fashion. They are also used by men, most especially in Mali among the Bambara (Bamana) people.
These masks are exactly as the name suggests. They are worn as helmets and they are known across Africa among many people including the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
Worn over one’s shoulder, these masks are not as popular as others above, but it is still significant among some cultures. Among the Baga people of Guinea, these masks are known as Nimba D’mba Shoulder Masks and they are mostly used by women to improve fertility or cure infertility.
Ancient Tribal Masks
There are some very popular ancient and tribal masks such as the following, which are used for very special occasions.
- Mblo Mask- This is popular among the Baule Tribe of Ivory Coast. Worn by men, it can be used during the funeral of women during harvest or wedding, and other events.
- Bedu Plank Mask- This is also used by the Nafana Tribe of Ivory Coast. It is used in keeping off spirits that are considered bad and harmful.
- Kanaga Mask- Used by the Dogon Tribe of Mali, it serves to protect the hunter from the spirits of the game he kills during hunting.
- Circumcision Mask- Most ancient cultures have their special forms of circumcision masks.
- Butterfly Mask- This tribal mask is very popular among the Bobo Tribe of Burkina Faso when invoking the Do deity. This is done when the people need rains, fertility, or something of the sort.
- Not everyone can wear these masks as most are reserved for revered tribesmen, spiritual leaders or young men during initiation rites.
- There are different masks that are designed for different occasions such as marriages, funerals, and other ceremonies.
- Although they are mostly carved from wood, many are made with other materials such as iron and bronze.
- Some masks are believed to have the power of transforming one into a spirit.
- Each mask has its significance and meaning, as well as its purpose.
- Most masks are designed with human faces but come have animal faces.
- In most African societies, masks are passed on from a father to his eldest son, who is also expected to pass it on.