History, Overview, Materials, Structure & Uses
In many African cultures, masks are used in rituals to honor the ancestors, but in Maasai culture the masks were historically worn in traditional ceremonies including celebrations, initiations, crop harvests, and war preparations. The masks often represented the spirits of mythological beings, animals, or spirits.
The most commonly used material for masks is wood, although a wide variety of other elements can be used, including light stone such as steatite, metals such as copper or bronze, different types of fabric, pottery, and more. Some masks are painted using ochre or other natural colorants.
A wide array of ornamental items can be applied to the mask surface; example include animal hair, horns, or teeth, sea shells, seeds, straws, egg shell, and feathers. For example, animal hair or straws are often used for a mask’s hair or beard.
The general structure of a mask varies depending on the way it is intended to be worn.
The most common type applies to the wearer’s face, like most Western, carnival masks. Others are worn like hats on the top of the wearer’s head; examples include those of the Ekhoi people of Nigeria and Bwa people of Burkina Faso, as well as the famous chiwara masks of the Bambara people. Some masks, for example, those of the Sande society of Liberia and the Mende people of Sierra Leone, that are made from hollow tree stumps, are worn like helmets covering both the head and face. Some African cultures have mask-like ornaments that are worn on the chest rather than the head of face; this includes those used by the Makonde people of East Africa.
A common variation on the animal-mask theme is the composition of several distinct animal traits in a single mask, sometimes along with human traits. Merging distinct animal traits together is sometimes a means to represent unusual, exceptional virtue or high status. For example, the Poro secret societies of the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast have masks that celebrate the exceptional power of the society by merging three different “danger” symbols: antelope horns, crocodile teeth, and warthog fangs. Another well-known example is that of kifwebe masks of the Songye people (Congo basin), that mix the stripes of a zebra (or okapi), the teeth of a crocodile, the eyes of a chameleon, the mouth of an aardvark, the crest of a cock, the feathers of an owl and more.
Another common subject of African masks is a woman’s face, usually based on a specific culture’s ideal of feminine beauty. Female masks of the Punu people of Gabon, for example, have long curved eyelashes, almond-shaped eyes, thin chin, and traditional ornaments on their cheeks, as all these are considered good-looking traits.
Feminine masks of the Baga people have ornamental scars and breasts. In many cases, wearing masks that represent feminine beauty is strictly reserved to men.
One of the well-known representations of female beauty is the Idia mask of Benin. It is believed to have been commissioned by a king of Benin in memory of his mother. To honor his dead mother, the king wore the mask on his hip during special ceremonies.
Ancestors (masks of the dead)
As the veneration of defunct ancestors is a fundamental element of most African traditional cultures, it is not surprising that the dead is also a common subject for masks. Masks referring to dead ancestors are most often shaped after a human skull.
A well-known example is the mwana pwo (literally, “young woman”) of the Chokwe people (Angola), that mixes elements referring to feminine beauty (well-proportioned oval face, small nose and chin) and other referring to death (sunken eye sockets, cracked skin, and tears); it represents a female ancestor who died young, venerated in rites such as circumcision rites and ceremonies associated to the renewal of life.
As veneration of the dead is most often associated to fertility and reproduction, many dead-ancestor masks also have sexual symbols; the ndeemba mask of the Yaka people (Angola and DR Congo), for example, is shaped after a skull complemented with a phallic-shaped nose.
A special class of ancestor masks are those related to notable, historical or legendary people. The mwaash ambooy mask of the Kuba people (DR Congo), for example, represents the legendary founder of the Kuba Kingdom, Woot, while the mgady amwaash mask represents his wife Mweel.
- Circular face
- Bold lips
- Gentle sloping forehead
- Ideal for any home decor
- Great gift item
- 29.5″x 5.25″ x2.4″ D
- Estimated to be over 50 years old
- co-Friendly: carved from natural and sustainable wood
- Made in Ivory Coast