This page is Work in Progress.
With one known exception, masks in Africa are largely made and danced by men. Masks are also decorated, painted, with additional carvings and other materials such as hair, ceramic fragments and textiles.
The masks we have become familiar with are those carved from wood and are commonly found in museums and galleries, auction houses, even car boot sales.
African masks influenced the avant-garde artists of early 19th century Europe. At the time, Europeans were not really interested in who made them or for what reason. They were more concerned about what the masks expressed.
Of course, masks do not come in one shape or form. There is much variety in carving styles that these details help the observer to identify their place of origin, their function and on rare occasions, who made them.
Eight mask types from the African continent have been identified: helmet, face, headdress, crest, shoulder, plank, body and composite.
Helmet: these are carved out of a single trunk of wood and hollowed out to completely cover the wearer’s face but there are holes through which the wearer can see and breath. Helmet masks do not need to be tied in place, but may have an integrted costume indicated by holes along the mask’s lower edge. Examples are made by the Mende of Sierra Leone, the Suku of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Yoruba of SW Nigeria.
There are Mende examples in RAMM’s collection. The Mende people have the only known secret society run by and for women; called the Sande Society.
Older society members who wear and dance the helmet mask (called ndoli jowei ‘the sowei who dances’) are completely concealed in a costume of black raffia and textiles.
The ndoli jowei embodies the potent spirit of the Sande Society. Sowei performances mark important phases of transition in a woman’s life. Such dances are accompanied by music, dancing and singing.
The initiation of new members is concerned with the rites of passage of the youth into adulthood.
The mask symbolises all that is beautiful and desirable in Mende culture.
Face: this type is prevalent in western and central regions of the continent. It’s likely to be the commonest mask type found in all continents. Again, shaped from a single piece of wood and decorated with pigment and organic materials, they are designed to be worn in front of the face. There are holes for the wearer’s eyes, nose and mouth. This type needs to be attached to the wearer’s head by ties.
An example from RAMM’s collection was acquired in 1998 and comes from the Ibibio of the Cross River region, SE Nigeria. This Idiok Ekpo face mask has a hinged jaw.
It represents the spirit of someone who has died in socially acceptable ways or they violated social codes and laws. This type of mask is used by the community to deal with sensitive issues such as negative behaviour in society.
Headdress: this mask type is worn on top of the head and consists of a small platform upon which the complex carvings above stand.
Headdresses are held in place by headscarves or attached to a cap worn on the head. They are typically incorporated into a large costume which conceals the wearer.
Examples of this mask type include the chi wara used by the Bamana of Mali and the Kurumba adoné antelope headdresses from the northern regions of Burkina Faso. One recent example bequeathed to RAMM was carved in the mid-20th century and was made for sale.
The adoné headdress were likely commissioned to honour the memories of leading elders upon their deaths. Mask inauguration was accompanied by offerings, and the mask was given the name of the deceased. It became a memorial infused with its own agency.
These headdresses could also serve as sites for offerings and prayers to the ancestors. They could be used as portable alters or placed on an existing altar in the ancestral spirit house within a family compound.