The African mask is that piece which can personalize and embellish your own space, from your living room to your office. Choosing an African mask instead of a painting or a tapestry is not a trivial matter; it is an important decision which takes time, because a mask may a permanent decoration that has to match to your interior design. We are talking about something that, in addition to furnishing your environment, will bring with it an ancient and authentic history, too. In fact, the African mask is the key element of West Africa culture; since ancient times, it has taken a leading role in the social life of many populations, having a significant role in the daily life of the tribes. The African masks are fascinating and mysterious symbols, with multiple functions: they can be the link with the ancestors and the spirits of the afterlife; they confer prestige to those who possess them, usually those who hold political roles; they are also fundamental for the collective rituals, as the passage from youth to adulthood, during fertility rites, initiations or motherhood celebrations. Usually, African masks testify the belonging to the tribe. However, they can also express the subjectivity of the individual, depicting different moods, such as joy, anger, love or fear.
The African masks, worn mainly by men, were adorned with weeds or vegetation; they were the main element of the costume and they were commissioned to the artist of the community, which was a figure of great importance. Depending on ethnicity, masks are designed in different ways, with styles that can present abstract figures, almost cubist, or more figurative representations rich of details, such as elaborate hairstyles. However, what unites all the different styles are the constant strong expressiveness and symmetry, which are the precious added value of African art. “The masks, especially, not having to match to aesthetic needs but having to match with the conceptual ones, to connect the earthly nature to the transcendent nature, they serve as a means to correct or eliminate any imbalance in the natural order, as well as the fears connected with an existence of its own precarious, full of dangers and mysteries. The mask or sculpture is the point at which forces, aspirations, memories and rituals meet and through which they interchange and filter.” – Gabriele Mandel (1924-2010), Italian psychologist, writer, artist and archaeologist.
The meaning of African Masks
Depending on the tribes and ethnic groups to which they belong to, African masks can have many different roles and functions. Undoubtedly, they have a charm that involves not only African people but also any person, thanks to their ability to stimulate the imagination, because of their inherent promise of transformation. In fact, wearing a mask recalls the idea of hiding identity, to assume a new and completely different one. This causes wonder, amused disarray, yet also fear and anxiety.
The now customary presence of African masks in Western countries’ museums or residences has caused a certain loss of their original value. Today, these African masks are considered as masterpieces but it is omitted what originally gave their splendor and beauty, that is to say their spiritual strength. In their original context, such as the tribe, the mask was a revered, honored, loved but also feared entity. The importance of the mask to African peoples is the invisible force assigned to it, which may be the natural element, or the spirit of an ancestor, a deity or any embodied supernatural power. He who wears a mask combines and blends his strength to the spirit associated with it, extending value and increasing power.
Nowadays, the role of the African mask has seen an internal differentiation; in fact, if some Black Africa’s tribes still use masks during their various ceremonies and celebrations, for rituals remained unchanged over time, on the other hand, other tribes do not possess them no more.
Examples of African Masks
African masks vary in their conformation, presenting different styles, ranging from the basic design of the Dogon to the more figurative Baulé one.
Dogon have about seventy-five types of masks, of different sizes and designs. They are stylized, almost abstract, with monumental examples like the type representing the snake ‘iminama’; or the ‘kanaga’ type, with the face synthesized by two vertical grooves, which act as eyes, surmounted by a large cross. Another feature is that the Dogon prefer untreated wood, without using colored patinas, like many other tribes do.
Another African mask example, which emerges because its monumental grandeur, is the snake-shaped dance headdress, of the Baga ethnic group. It is called Bansonyi and it was used by other people of Guinea, too. This huge mystical snake holds the spirit that protects the village from the evil and it’s a sign of prosperity; it appears during the initial and final stages of initiation cycles. This sinuous sculpture, sometimes with a height of over 2 meters, stood on the head; the wearer wore a tunic in natural fibers, letting stand out the majestic headdress. The snake is simply decorated with white and black triangles, which alternate rhythmically, highlighting volumes and chromatic harmony. The extra height of these headdresses gave vertical momentum, transferring the powerful depiction of the spirit guarded by the legendary serpent.
Another African mask of extraordinary artistry and beauty, which identifies immediately the Bambara ethnic group from Mali, is the dance hat “tyi-wara”. It is antelope-shaped and it belongs to the Chiwara society. It represents a mythical creature, which taught the art of agriculture to the tribe and it symbolizes the tireless farmer. The headdress was worn as a helmet, accompanied by a fiber costume. Couples, who carried sticks, mimicking the elegant movements of the antelopes, usually wore it. They danced in front of young farmers, to the beat of drums and singing women. The headgear “tyi-wara” could represent the antelope in different versions: male, female or female with a cub.
African masks are used mainly by men. However, in the Mende ethnic group from Liberia, the Bundu helmet is used by women. They perform very important functions for the tribal community life. Their masks-helmet portray and celebrate an idealized feminine beauty, both external and internal, in which the face shape remembers the Mende physical features. The shape of these masks changes depending on the group, by varying the type of hairstyle or the neck volumes. Indeed, the extraordinary nature of these African masks lies in the details and particulars of the hair and collars at the base of the chin.
The “Kifwebe” masks by Songye ethnic group, from Congo, are African masks with a clear cubist style, marked by strong stylized volumes and geometricity. These masks were worn by the male members of secret societies, to exercise political power over the tribe. The dancer who wore this mask inspired fear, respect and he was seen as a being with supernatural powers. These great African masks can be of two types: female or male. The latter are larger, with a more strict and authoritarian look. Their undisputed beauty has inspired many Occidental artists, who took inspiration from them. Their very stylized forms and volumes, sometimes disproportionate but always harmonious, are highlighted by colored engraved lines, giving added value to the majesty of these extraordinary African masks.
The basin of Niger
Like other ancient world cultural centers also that of Black Africa has grown in the valleys of the great rivers. The basin of the Niger includes the south of the Republic of Mali, the border with Guinea to the northeast, then branching off to the south.
The tribes included in this region are: Bambara, Marka, Soninké, Malinké, Bozo, Dogon, Bobo, Bwa, Gurunsi, Mossi, Kurumba-Nioniosi, Senoufo, Nafana, Koulango, Toussian, Lobi, Ligbé.
The art of this province obviously reflects cultural diversity and ethnic history. However, you can see that the western part is stylistically homogenous, while the east is more diverse, because of its greater ethnic heterogeneity.
The Bambara, of the language family Mandé (also including Soninke and Malinke), were able to better interpret the artistic tradition of the group, producing anthropomorphic and zoomorphic masks and dance-headdresses depicting antelopes.
The masks of the Marka and Malinke tribe, although showing some originality, are to be considered as regional variations of the Bambara style, while Bozo’s zoomorphic polychromatic masks are stylistically more autonomous.
As for the Dogon, it is the best-known and more productive ethnicity, with very ancient traditions and rich themes. Their masks, until recently, were the African masks most studied in Europe. In them, the structural simplicity merges with a rigorous geometry. The best known are called “Kanaga”; they have a crest on the top plate (whose etched and carved motifs represent the full semantic power) and the set remembers the shape of a crocodile.
The second largest ethnic group known belonging to the basin of the Niger is that of Bobo. This ethnic group is famous for their masks-helmet with a vibrant polychromy; they have a round flat face and eyes and mouth concentric or rhomboid.
Turning to small little known tribes, that of Toussian has produced remarkable zoomorphic masks. They are remarkable examples of geometric representation, abstract and two-dimensional. Their rectangles are divided graphically by diagonals, forming four triangles, the upper of which has a small symbol of the animal represented (horns to indicate a buffalo, for example).
The western Gulf of Guinea
The tribes belonging to the geographical area of the western Gulf of Guinea are: Bidyogo, Nalou, Landouman, Baga, Mende, Vai, Gola, Temme, Toma (Loma), Krou, Grebo, Kpelle, Dan, to pretend, to pretend-Wobe, Bété , Gouro, Baoulé, Baoulé-Yaouré, Attie, Adioukrou, Alagya, Ébrié, Asante, Agni, Abron, Fanti.
In general, it is difficult to determine the exact boundaries of the artistic African provinces African. This holds true especially for this area, because of migration within the continent and shuffles of ethnicities. However, we can determine the political geography of this area, which includes Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, along the north-western Sudan.
The western part of the Gulf of Guinea is artistically divided into three regions:
1. The first one includes the tribes Bidyogo, Nalou, Landdouman and Baga. Their masks are realistic, naturalistic and essentially monumental (an example of this is the mask “banda”, which was used for initiations);
2. The second one includes many tribes of Sierra Leone, Liberia, southeast Guinea and west Ivory Coast. It presents facial masks designed primarily to secret society “poro” and “bundu”;
3. The third one encompasses the tribes Bété and Gouro but suffers the stylistic influence of Dan and Ngéré. There are masks in the shape of a human face, with a high forehead and an introverted expression. The top of some masks can be dominated by a pair of characters.
As regards the clans Baoulé, they have been the most prolific in terms of sculpture, both for the number of styles, both in quantity of works. One reason for this wealth is their geographical position, which allowed the meeting with different cultures. An example are the Baoulé’s masks “kplé-kplé”, which express the contrast between Baoulé style, realistic and rounded, and the style of western Sudan, more angular and rigid.
Eastern part of the Gulf of Guinea
The eastern part of the Gulf of Guinea can be divided into four main areas:
1. Today’s Republic of Benin and western Nigeria, including the tribes Ewé, Fon, Yoruba, Bini, Urhobo and Ishan.
It is the most important region and it is influenced by Yoruba stylistic tradition; their masks are the best known of traditional African art and were used especially during ritual dances.
The Bini, on the Eastern side, fully express their style with tribal facemasks for the secret company “Ekpo”, which at the height of the jaw can have a small bar that the dancer holds between the teeth.
The nearby Urhobo tribes have masks, which obviously influenced Cubism; some masks are representatives of the water spirits.
The Ishan, instead, have produced facemasks recognizable by large slits for the eyes and an open mouth baring all his teeth.
2. The southeastern Nigeria, including the tribes Ijo, Kalabari, Anyang, Widekum, Ekoi, Keaka, Bokyi, Ibibio, Kana and Ibo.
The Ijo, being in the coastal belt of the Niger Delta, have developed themes influenced by the elements of water; they believed in the existence of water spirits who decided of the fate of men. The masks of these supernatural beings are very stylized heads of fish, or of monsters made by assembling various parts of aquatic animals.
The small tribe Ekoi produced masks of female heads topped by magnificent hairstyles.
The Bokyi, instead, offer masks featuring two faces and masks with animal heads with a snout-shaped beak.
The Ibo tribe (divided into dozens of sub-tribes) drew inspiration for his masks from many travel experiences, since it is composed of many traders or travelling artisans. Therefore, their works the result of a mosaic of styles and themes. We can mention the masks of secret society “mmwo”, by elongated faces and generally white, representing young dead women. Or the”mba” masks, with narrow and oval shape, arched eyebrows and scarification on the cheeks. Or, again, the “maji” masks, used for initiations.
3. The basin of the Benoué, including the tribes Igala, Idoma, Tiv, Jukun, Chamba Bwaka, Mumuyé, Mambila, Kaka, Wurkum, Goemai, Montol, Kantana, Ham, Koro, Afo, Lower Ngue, Lower Komo, Igbira and Nupe.
In this artistic province, we discovered the oldest traces of African plastic art.
The tribe Igala has dance-masks, polychromatic and shaped like a human head.
The Idoma, instead, are characterized by very abstract dance-masks, which recall a tower.
The small tribe Jukun developed “aku-un” (also called “aku-maga”) masks, which are extremely abstract, representing a human face with a long pointed nose, like a beak, in which a leaf is inserted. The term “aku”, meaning “king”, makes believe that these masks were conceived for religious purposes or rituals. The king of Jukun, who appeared only veiled, was elected for a period of 7 years at most, after which he was strangled.
The Islamized tribes of Nupe has produced oval masks; their distinctive elements are circular cracks for the eyes, as well as projections on the top. These masks suggest a sculptural tradition in the Islamized lands of northern Nigeria.
4. The grassland of Cameroon, including the tribes Bamiléké, Bangwa, Tikar, Bekom, Bamoum, Bali, Bafoum, Bakoundou and Douala.
In this grassy plateau many tribes settles down, creating realms-villages, where the king’s power was often limited by secret societies.
The rich production of this artistic province is linked to the art of court.
The Bangwa tribe produced taut-skin masks, while the Bamiléké is distinguished by anthropomorphic dance-masks; masks representing elephants are very stylized, while the ones representing buffalos are more realistic.
The Bakoundou are remembered for their facial masks resembling an upside-down drop of water; in them, eyes are placed into circular orbits.
The art of Douala has created stylized masks depicting a buffalo. Their polychromic was obtained with imported paints, with which the surface was divided into geometric multicolored zones. They were used by a secret society called “ekangolo”.
This division takes into account the main stylistic diversity of this artistic province, so diverse ethnically and linguistically.
The big artistic province of Equatorial Africa includes Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Zaire, Angola, stretching out towards some neighboring countries.
We received few items from this area because:
– the territory sees alternating rain forest and savannah; this humid tropical climate is the cause of the extreme perishability of the most expressive medium of African art, that is to say wood;
– the hinterland remained inaccessible until the second half of 1800;
– in Congo, the fanaticism of the Christian missions has persisted against traditional art, until in 1717 the Portuguese were cast out and the traditional art was restored;
– French colonialism imposed the Christianization and the destruction of local idols.
For these reasons, only artworks made by isolated tribes in areas of difficult access arrived to us.
We can divide equatorial Africa into five stylistic zones:
1. Ogooué Basin, including the tribes Fang, Bane, Boulou, Youndé, Yabassi, Bakota, Mahongwé, Ambété, Mitsogho, Balumbo, Mashango, Ashira, Bapounou, Bavouvi.
The beti tribes (such as Bane, Boulou, Youndé, Ntoumou, Mwai and Fang) have all developed heads and anthropomorphic figures placed on the covers of reliquaries (called ‘bieri’), in which were placed the bones of ancestors. Another issue that unifies them are facial masks painted in white, representing the spirits of dead girls. Most important masks (called ‘ngel’) belong to the secret society ‘ngi’; they are white, long and narrow, in which a vertical line summarizes schematizing facial features, while the eyes are represented with narrow slits;
2. Northern Zaire, including the tribes Bakwélé, Bwaka, Mangbétou, Azande, Bambolé, Balega.
The Bakwélé masks represent stylized zoomorphic heads of elephants, antelopes or gorillas. They were used for dancing or decorative purposes.
Initiation masks by Bwaka may be stylized, concave and heart-shaped, or with a row of hazelnut shaped scarifications.
In Balega tribe, instead, the company ‘bwamé’ has encouraged the production of masks representing their different levels of initiation (five for men, three for women).
3. Lower Congo, including the ethnic groups Bavili, Bawoyo, Basoundi, Basolongo, Babembé, Batéké-Sise, Batéké-Fumu, Kuyu.
It is a classic area of fetishism, where the prevailing style is realist and rounded, avoiding deformation or exaltation. This style is called ‘Bakongo’ and assumes not ethnic but linguistic unity. In the late nineteenth century, the Lower Congo was one of the first African territories to relate with the request of traditional artefacts by Europeans. As a result, the themes of the works have changed, bowing to the tastes of visitors.
4. Southern Zaire, including the ethnic groups Bayaka, Basuku, Bambala, Bahuana, Bapendé, Bakuba, Bashilélé, Bawongo, Bashobwa, Babinji, Bakété, Ndengese, Biombo Bena, Bena Lulua, Balwalwa, Basalampasu, Bena Kanioka, Batshokwé, Ovimboundou, Baholo . The great basin of Kasai divides the region culturally and geographically.
The Bayaka are known for their masks-helmet; they were worn by young people, in procession, returning to the village after initiation. The top of the masks is surmounted by a hairstyle, while on the front there is a figure; this figure is often renewed and diversified, in order to entertain the viewer.
The Basuku polychrome mask-helmet (called ‘hemba’) is entirely made of wood; it represents a human head, above which there is a carved animal, often a bird.
The Bakuba masks are primarily of three types. The first two types are fixed: the ‘mwaash to mbooy’ mask represents the king Woot, while ‘Shene Malula’ depicts the eponymous sister and wife of the king. The third type, called ‘ngady to mwaash’, is variable in color and details.
The Batshokwé have developed a wide range of ceremonial masks. We can mention the ‘chikunza’ type, representing a benevolent spirit that ensures fertility.
5. Basin of Lualaba, including ethnic groups Baluba, Basikasingo, Babembé, Babuyé, Baholoholo, Batabwa, Basongye, Batetela.
Baluba masks are dark, semi-spherical, decorated with white circles and with facial features very stylized. They are used during the cerimonies related to the tribal chief.
The Batetela masks are often masks-helmet with two opposite faces, surmounted by horns or further small head. Or they are conic helmets with schematic features, on top of which there is a sort of aureole.
Eastern And Southern Africa
The East and Southern Africa includes the following tribes: Bari, Gato, Konso, Ometo, Wassiba, Wakerewe, Wassukuma, Abaha, Wabendé, Wanyamwezi, Wagogo, Washambala, Wasaramo, Doe, Wabondei, Makonde, Wamovere, Mawia, Wayao, Lomwe , Barotse (Lozi), Masubia, Bathonga, Zulu.
Erroneously, it is thought that the East and Southern Africa are “territories without art” (kunstloses Gebiet). It is legit to say that they are poor of traditional art and they have preferred statuary than masks. However, even these regions have important artistic centers.
The Wassiba, a tribe from Tanzania, have developed wooden schematic masks, which instead of eyes have large round holes. The peculiarity lies in the mouth, adorned with real human teeth.
Another tribe from Tanzania is the Wamovere one, which has produced anthropomorphic and zoomorphic masks.
Then, there are the facial masks by Makonde, reminiscent of the Yoruba ones. They are slightly rounded, highly stylized and painted in dark brown or dark red shades. The female masks differ from those of men because of the presence of “pelelé”, that is a labial disc.
The neighboring tribe Mawia copied the Makonde masks, approaching stylistically and thematically.
The Barotse (Lozi) have created masks for dance called “makishi”; they are made by wicker, decorated with geometric designs and they have two rows of sharp teeth.