African Masks and their Significance in the West African Culture

Plants & Herbs

 

In West African society masks play important spiritual and functional roles.  The rituals related to ceremonial masks are critical aspects of traditional culture and art in West Africa.

As communities sought guidance from their spirit ancestors to control the forces of good and evil, masks were worn for protection during religious and social celebrations.  Traditional celebrations include the annual festival of the dry season, weddings, births, funerals, dance ceremonies, preparing for or marking the end of war, ritual ceremonies of child initiation into adulthood, and crop harvests.

West African masks are also regarded as some of the finest creations in the art world.  Masks can be designed in various shapes or forms including circular, rectangular, oval, or heart-shaped, as well as a combination of animal and human features to signify the unity of man and his natural environment.  Masks are also made from a variety of materials such as brass, ivory, copper, fabric, wood, bronze, and leather, while some are decorated with animal skin, hair, horns, teeth, bones, cowrie shells, feathers, and coloured beads.

In West African societies, before a tree is felled to carve a mask, a diviner seeks the permission of the tree before it is cut down as a form of respect.  This ceremony recognizes the spiritual power and inspiration of the tree.  Some believe that during the carving and rendering of a mask, spiritual powers in the wood are transferred into the tools of the artist.  As a result of the close connection between the spirit of the mask and its carver, it is sometimes feared that the mask’s power can be used by the artist to harm others.

There is also the belief that the masks beckon the spirits during various ritual ceremonies. These ceremonies include the initiation of a child from adolescence into adulthood, crop harvesting, or at funeral ceremonies where masks are used to pay respect to the dead and to communicate with ancestral spirits. A variety of masks are used to evoke the deities and to give the dead safe passage away from the evil forces of the spirit world.  During the ceremonies persons will appear to be spirit possessed as if in a trance as they receive guidance and wisdom from their ancestors while wearing the mask.

The following is a list of masks from West Africa.

v  Gelede ceremonial mask, worn by the Yoruba people of Nigeria.

v  Epa ceremonial mask, also worn during the Epa masquerade by the Yoruba people in Nigeria.

v  Ekkpe headdress mask, worn by members of secret societies the Igbo, Oron and Ekoi group during various ceremonies in Nigeria.

v  Helmet ceremonial mask, by the Bekom tribe, in Cameroon

v  Animal mask, which represent the buffaloes and are worn on the top on the head by the
Bamileke tribe, Cameroon and used during dances before hunting.

v  Miniature mask from the Dan tribe, Ivory Coast, worn by magicians.

v  Egungun ancestral mask, worn by the Yoruba people of Southern Nigeria.

References:

Fagg, William and Margaret Plass. African Sculpture: an anthology. London: Studio Vista

Limited, 1964.

Brain, Robert. Art and Society in Africa. London: Longman Group, 1980.

Underwood, Leon. Masks of West Africa. London: Alec Tiranti Ltd. 1948.

Herold, Erich. The Art of Africa: Tribal Masks, From the Naprstek Museum. London: Drury House, 1967.

Newman, Thelma R. Contemporary African arts and crafts: on-site working art forms and

processes. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1974.

Picton, John. “Ekpeye Masks and Masking” African Arts 21: 2 (1988): 46-53.

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