Published: December 3, 2002
By A.L. Dunnington
L0NG ISLAND CITY, N.Y. – Masks. They are something we all wear – figuratively or literally – at one time or another, to protect or conceal, to unify, comfort, terrify or confuse, to somehow guide us in our daily lives. Their very name conjures up images of magic, fear, promise and power. They are a bridge between the practicalities of everyday life and the mysterious, the unknowable, the unknown.
And so when the Museum for African Art (MAA) moved from SoHo this fall to its interim location in Queens, it opened with a show that went straight to the heart of one of the central rituals of traditional African culture: the art of masking.
“” presents nearly 80 African masks in an interactive exhibit that includes video clips of traditional mask dances, and mask-making displays intended to bring to life this key element of traditional African art and culture. The exhibit is divided into two sections: the first explores the mask’s function, and the second, its aesthetics.
“Masks are re-creations that represent the supernatural, and bring the supernatural into the village community as a living thing,” said Frank Herreman, MAA’s deputy director for exhibitions and publications, and author of the exhibition catalog. Theirs is a powerful function: to keep villages, communities and families together, and to ensure their continued existence.
The exhibit begins with video clips of mask dances: It is in the dynamism of the masks dancing – the masquerades – that spirits are incarnated and perform their function as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual world, Herreman said. But as important, he added, is the aesthetic experience.
“We try to demonstrate through different masks how certain ideas, certain traditions influence how the mask maker represents the human face, or an animal, or a supernatural being,” Herreman said. “There is incredible variety in how things are represented and that makes the show very rich in visual experiences.”
Early modernist painters, including Picasso and Matisse, were captivated by African masks. “It was the artists of emergent European modernism…who recognized the aesthetic qualities of the sacred sculptures and masks,” Christoph Vitali writes in the preface of the recently published book, African Masks. “They were fascinated by the formal dynamism and expressive power of African objects, which corresponded to their own search for simplified forms and directness and immediacy of expression.”
And so, “” is both a gateway to understanding a sculptural aesthetic and cultural art form, and to exploring a key aspect of traditional African culture: how the supernatural world can come alive.
Masking and Masquerades
The sounds, songs and dances of the masquerades can be terrifying, electrifying, unifying, entertaining; they can be used to teach, admonish, protect, warn, unify, intimidate and lead. Almost always masks include a full body costume, so that the uninitiated – those who are not part of the mask societies that protect and preserve the traditions – do not know one of their own people is performing the dance. And it is the dance, or masquerade, that brings the spirit alive.
Physically, masks can be divided into six main types: Face masks, which conceal the wearer’s face; helmet masks, which are carved out of tree trunks and fit over the wearer’s entire head; helmet crests, which are worn like a cap; cap crests, or forehead masks, which like the face mask, is a half-face, but worn at the crest of the head; headdress masks, representing human or animal heads or figures, secured atop the dancer’s head; and shoulder masks, set on the dancer’s shoulders, with small holes allowing the dancer to see. From here, the variations and adaptations are innumerable.
In addition, despite differences between African cultures in religion, language and social structures, there are three main formal traditions in mask masking: the realistic, a representational image of humans or animals; the idealistic, a glorification of physical beauty; and the abstract, a nonrealistic interpretation of human and/or animal features.
As authors Maria Kecskesi and Laszlo Vajda write in African Masks: “Each individual mask…represents part of a larger cultural ethos. It should be viewed not as an isolated thing but as a component of a social, intellectual, and, not lastly, an artistic whole…The masks were worn by men in exuberant dances, or stridden slowly and with dignity. Accompanied by music and song, gestures and rhythms were determined by the type and purpose of the masquerade.”
In traditional African society, masks are the media that bring the supernatural alive, and into the heart of village life. “When you think about medieval cathedrals in Europe, and statues of Catholic saints, for instance, imagine that those saints suddenly come to life: That is what happens with masks,” Herreman said. “Ancestors come alive; nature spirits come alive. They are there to help the people keep their community together, to keep the economic balance in place, to safeguard social structures – things that help the community stay alive.”
Some masking rituals encourage good crop harvests; others help hunters bring home game. Social structures are protected, often in the form of incarnate ancestors, Herreman said. “There is a great respect for the people who passed away. Traditional African cultures believe that a person who dies serves as a mediator between the human world and the supernatural world: the ancestor enters the supernatural world to protect his descendants.”
One face mask of the Lumbo and Punu peoples (Ngunie River), Gabon, incarnates dead women who were renowned for their moral and physical beauty. Another, the ge face masks of the Dan peoples, Ivory Coast, is considered an independent supernatural being that facilitates communication between humans, and between humans and ancestors. The mask, however, must be pleased and treated with respect or it may turn vengeful.
In African culture, masks are controlled by men, and can be used, Herreman said, to keep women “on the right track.” In Nigeria, for instance, among groups such as the Mumuye, masks “come out” when a woman is believed to be committing adultery. The woman is hidden inside the house and forbidden to see the mask as it circles her home, accompanied by musical instruments and sounds particular to the “voice” of that mask. The ritual both identifies and punishes the adulterer.
Not all masks are worn by men, however. An exception is thesowei helmet mask, worn by women among the Mende, Vai and Gola peoples of Sierra Leone and Liberia. These masks are used during female initiation rites, led by the Sande society, which prepare girls for their future as wives and mothers. As they dance the masquerade, the women’s identities are concealed by full body costumes. Each element of the mask is symbolic: its polished darkness represents water spirits; and the neck rolls represent both the water ripples of Sande spirits rising from the river, and the girls’ physical maturation.
“When you wear a mask you become a supernatural being,” Herreman said. “What these masks incarnate are water spirits, and the image of the ideal beautiful woman. It prepares girls for their role in society as adult women.”
In some cases, when a mask fails to succeed at its designated function, its meaning can change. The Pende peoples from the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, have initiation masks and village masks. The village masks were believed to incarnate the dead, uniting with the villagers to ward off danger, and acting as a supernatural weapon to defend the community.
During a devastating 1931 uprising against Belgian colonial rule, however, the masks failed to protect the Pende. And so their function changed: Now village masks are used strictly for entertainment.
But many masks have retained their traditional purpose, keeping the community together by dancing rituals linked to life cycles or seasonal cycles, Herreman said. “Very often, masks come out during the dry season,” he said. “This is the most dangerous season, because if it continues, you can’t grow food. The mask comes out and dances so that there will be rain, and the crops will grow.” If no rain comes, despite the masquerade, other explanations are sought: Generally, it assumed someone in the village did something wrong. It is then that the masks are changed and the spiritually powerful ancestral masks are pressed into action by the community to punish the culprit.
Similarly, disease and death are not believed to be natural occurrences. “If you are ill, or when you die, the explanation is that you may have done something wrong during your life,” Herreman said. “Or perhaps your neighbor was jealous and performed sorcery on you.” Toward the end of the mourning period, masks are used to propel the deceased’s spirit out of community and into the spirit world of the ancestors, allowing the villagers to resume their daily lives.
Generally, in traditional African culture, women are the masters of the village: they run the household, they conduct business, and they sell goods at market. Men are the soldiers and hunters who venture into the outside world.
“Now if you go outside of the village you are less protected, you are in the world of nature,” Herreman said. “The village is a cultural world, a protected world, because all kinds of systems have been created to make life possible for people. Once you go outside, it’s much more dangerous – you can encounter animals, you can encounter people from enemy groups.”
In traditional African culture, the world of nature is believed to be full of spirits. “Everything is dynamic, there is life in everything,” Herreman said. “When you go into nature, that spiritual power is strongly present.”
Men often wear amulets to protect themselves when they leave the village, but they can also find allies in certain spirits in the natural world, and those spirits can be incarnated through masks. “These supernatural powers can be helpful if you handle them well; if you handle them badly, they can harm you,” Herreman said. “It’s the same with a mask: If you handle the mask well and nicely, it may be your ally; but if you don’t respect it, it may suddenly change its attitude toward you and become very dangerous.”
And so each mask has a life, unique to itself. Masks representing dead ancestors remain particularly integral to village and family life. “Ancestors are considered to be alive,” Herreman said. “They went into the spiritual world, but they can be strongly present through a mask…Imagine if suddenly your great-great-great grandfather shows up – the one who founded your family – and says you have to do such and such, and behave this way or that. If you believe in it, you will do it.”
In that way, order is restored in families and societies. “You see it firmly present among the Yoruba peoples in Nigeria, with the egungun masks – ancestor masks that perform each year, or can be called out by family elders to bring order back into the family,” Herreman said.
In the end, Herreman said, the exhibit presents masks not only in their traditional African context as incarnate otherworldly spirits, but as significant works of art. “,” he said, “demonstrates how African artists create…an infinite universe of creatures of great beauty and expressiveness.”
“” runs through March 2 at the Museum for African Art, 34-01 43rd Avenue. For additional information, call 718-784-7700, or www.africanart.org.
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