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Discover African Masks

The following is a general over view of African masks.

If you are interested in collecting African masks from galleries or even primary sources we are going to establish some links which take you to places where masks are for sale. Stay with the site as it progresses and hopefully links will be established to useful Africa masks contacts.

One of the places to visit on the web is Alibris. If you enjoy books about masks and tribal ways, shamaism and other aspects of old ways then click below. Alibris carries old, new and antiquarian books. It also links used and new book sellers World wide. If you have not visited it really is a must. This link takes you direct to the tribal books selections.

Click here for Alibris tribal books listings

Those of you who are thinking of a collecting trip to Africa may well find the following site useful. There are still places in Africa where genuine old African masks can be bought, generally through dealers. Also watch out for fakes as they do abound.

Remember, buy things you like as an investment can go up as well as down. If you like that carving or mask then the value is not as important. The link is African-Vacations.com, see the Carvings page link. The African masks of this area are well documented by Ladislas Segy in Masks of Black Africa. Much of the following section on Africa and Masks is influenced by his work.

The African masking traditions of this part of the World are extremely fertile and varied. The traditions supporting the masks are generally associated with the spirits of ancestors, rites of passage, fertility and initiation ceremonies. Dance is generally involved in the use of the masks. Segy lists the following types of ritual:-

Rituals of cosmology, myth and mythological heroes or animals
Fertility rites
Rituals for increase
Agricultural festivals
Rituals for rites of passage
Ancestor cults
Initiations including secret societies

Related Ceremonies

African Masks can be used for different ceremonies often having multiple purposes.

The size and style of masks are diverse, depicting animals, human faces and more abstract styles in sizes from a few centimetres to 4.5 metres in the case of the Dogon Iminana ( mother mask ). With only a few exceptions the masks are all part of a full costume and not just an isolated piece of decoration.. Segy notes:-

Face coverings Helmet masks Headdresses Masks with prominent breasts Amulets Insignia of grade Crowns of bead work

Click here to view some Mask Posters All posters Materials

Wood The major material was wood due to the large forest and range of species available. The choosing of a tree from which to make a mask was not as we might do today, find one and chop it down. Rather the carver would seek the help of a diviner and undergo a purification ceremony and when the first blow was struck he would drink some of the sap in order to form a brotherhood with the tree?s spirit. Mask would be carved from one piece of wood with nothing jointed, with some of the masks this created severe technical difficulties when the early carvers only had simple tools. Usually green timber was used as this was easier to cut. Certain varieties would be used for some special masks, but in general the softer woods were used.

To read an article on the creation and divination of trees fro masks click here.

Ivory was used by the Warega and Benin. The ivory was the property of the Benin kings (Oba) and they were the only ones to wear ivory as a mark of office. The carving of the Warega was not as refined but has a strong impact.

Brass was used by the Benin, Senufo and Ashanti.

Other Materials Knitted materials were used as were beadwork, basketry and fabrics. Additional materials included :- shells, beads, twigs, bark, teeth, hair, beaten or repousse metal, vegetable fibres and skin, to mention a few.

West Africa

The masks of this area are well documented by Ladislas Segy in Masks of Black Africa. His book lists the following areas:-

Republic of Guinea
Sierra Leone
Ivory Coast
Upper Volta

A Mendi (Bundu) Masks from Sierra Leone. One of the few masked womens secret societies. Absolutely fantastic masks found in a variety of similar styles. Notice the local idea of beauty is for large bodies.

Within each of these countries can be found ancient traditions associated with individual tribes displaying common links. The areas associated with some groups cross boundaries. The names of the different tribes is too extensive to list at the moment.

Equatorial Africa

Congo Zaire Zambia

Similar themes and traditions are found with the masks from this area when compared with those of the Western countries. In the early Fifteenth Century the well established Kongo people had close contact with the Portuguese and later some converted to Christianity. This has had some influence on the type of festivities and masks. The Kongo dominated various tribes in the area of these the Woyo and Yombe produced notable mask The Ndunga masks of the Woyo were larger than life size and had projecting foreheads large cheeks with small eyes, the surface of these faces was painted with white or brightly coloured asymmetrical designs.

The Western Pende on the Kwilu River in Zaire have two major types of mask. The Minhajl, which represent the ancestors and the Mbuya which represent various village characters such as the fool, the prostitute, the chief etc. These masks are used in the reinforcement of social control. The amusing performances are brightened by the triangular faces of the masks with bulging eyes, open mouths containing carved teeth painted in a variety of colours. The more powerful Minganji masks are simpler circular forms made from raffia with tubular eyes and no other features. All the masks are constructed in secret away from the village.

In the Makenda circumcision ceremony the Mbuya appear from out of the bush and dance in the village square until dusk. As the sky darkens, Minganji, masked dancers, materialise and move around the village at a distance, helping to develop the sense of awe and unease. In the secret circumcision camp the initiated youths are allowed to handle the mask as they are now fully fledged members of the society.

Many other styles are found in these areas.

East Africa

Tanzania and Mozambique are both home to the Mekonde one of the best know tribe of mask makers in East Africa. The Mekonde masks come in various styles, the southern groups using the helmet type. The features of these African masks are often realistic and are worn with a cloth covering the head of the dancer. Scarification is used. The characters represented are familiar to the local people:- the old man, the doctor, the young woman and the Arab, some animal masks are found.

Over view

It must be noted that the masks of Africa represent a wealth of forms and designs which have been well collected and catalogued. The total range of African masks is by no means represented here. The common connections between the African masks and the different groups are obviously strong.

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