African masks, Part One
When most people hear the word mask, they think of something that looks a lot like
a person’s head. They also imagine it being worn on someone’s face like a Halloween
But in Africa, masks come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are very tall
and heavy and are worn on the head like a helmet. Others are in the shape of a tent
which people get into and dance inside of. And of course, there is the commonly
known type of mask which looks similar to a human face.
You will find masks made of any combination of these materials:
- Beads (glass, plastic, clay, wood, etc…)
- Grass or straw
- Fabric or cloth
- Metal (everything from tin to gold)
- String or twine
In North America and Europe, collectors have always considered masks made of metals
of special value. This is probably because of these masks last so long. Also, many
masks made of gold or bronze were made for important members of African society
such as kings or chiefs, so people who collect them find that more interesting than
a mask worn by just anyone.
Let’s take an example to help you understand:
It is always good to have the guidance of your ancestors. If a king or queen wanted
to have a place for their ancestors to live, they could have a mask made for them.
Then the king would wear the mask around their neck like a necklace and would always
be influenced by the kinfolk when making important decisions. I guess you could
say the mask would be a way to carry your grandparents’ thoughts and ideas around
Since this type of mask would be worn by future kings and queens as well, it would
most likely be crafted from metal so it could survive over time.
Most masks though are made of things which do not last. Actually, that is done on
purpose because a mask is normally only used once. When the craftsman makes it,
he does so with a particular situation in mind. He considers: the event it is being
made for, the traditional way in which the mask is made, the date and circumstances
of the mask and even the particular person who will wear it.
Other times the mask is an almost identical copy of one made for hundreds of years.
There are masks made in modern day Mali and the Ivory Coast which are very similar
to masks seen on cave paintings found in Algeria which were painted between 8,000
or 9,000 years ago. Now that is continuity!