Basharat Bashir

African Masks

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Making masks and using them for different aspects is one of the many popular art forms around the world. A mask is an object worn on the face, typically for protection and disguise. Usually, disguised masks are used to hide the identity of a person and by its own features to establish another being. This vital characteristic of hiding and revealing personalities or moods is common to all masks.Craftsmen make masks in low relief so that it can be easily worn on face. Masks have been used since olden times for both ceremonial and practical purposes, as well as masks are also used in performing arts and for entertainment. In many cultures, masks play an important rolein various traditionaltraditional rituals.Many tribes of Africa have been using masks in their traditional ceremoniesfrom thousands of years.

History marks the use of masks in African tradition from palaeolithic era. African masks are usually carved from wood, but pottery, textiles, copper, bronzeas well as leather can also be used in its making.  In some cases, these masks are decorated with cloth, raffia and other plant fibres, shells, beads, found objects like porcupine quills and other natural objects, feathers, horns, paint, kaolin, nails, coloured glassetc.  And for detailing use animal teeth, hair, bones and horns as well as feathers, seashells and even straw and egg shells are utilized. African masks are unique and are greatly appreciated for their artistic value. And for their uniqueness they adorn the walls of World’s most famous art galleries and museums apart as well as provide our homes with an astonishing flair as we ornament it.

African masks are mysterious in their presence as we see them and each mask has a deeper spiritual significance which is important to recognize. African masks possess profound meaning which can only be understood by Understanding their history. And to appreciate cultural, symbolic, and aesthetical value of these masks and makers of these masks its vital to comprehend its history and tradition. African masks are not just used to disguise they serve an important role in rituals as well as ceremonies. Different masks are made carved with varied purposes like ensuring a good harvest, addressing tribal needs in time of peace or war, or conveying spiritual presences in birth rituals or burial ceremonies. In some cases masks represent the spirits ofdeceased ancestors while as others symbolize totem animals, creatures important to a certain family or group. In some cultures, like the Kuba culture of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, masks represent specific figures in tribal mythology, like a king or a rival to the ruler.

Masks function as a means of interaction between the people of this world with various spirit powers, and the status of the creator of the mask is highly elevated. Along with technical skill the mask makers are believed to have a connection with sprits represented by the mask they carve. They are admired for both for their spiritual knowledge and artistic skill. It is also believed that these artisans are able to communicate with sprits that dwell in the materials they use to create their pieces. The energy of the spirit is thought to inhabit the artists’ instruments, so their tools must be handled with extreme caution. As the mask gradually begins to take shape, the object is believed to acquire more supernatural ability. In some cultures, it is thought that this intimate relationship between the maker and his creation enables the artist himself to absorb some of its magic power.

In most cases African masks do not represent real people, dead or alive, or even animals, when they take on the form of animals. Moreover, it is believed that when an individual wears the mask, he no longer possess his own personality. Instead, a spirit occupies the mask and whatever the wearer does or says is attributed to the spirit of the mask. These spirits are often dead ancestors or even the spirits of individuals not yet born. The identity of the mask wearer is kept undisclosed and no one mentions the name of the wearer. And in some traditionsit is believed that if a mask falls off in front of someone who is not a member of the secret society, the spirit of the mask can become angry and even try to seek revenge.

Masks are created in three categories which are worn in different ways. One is made vertically in relief and it covers the face. In another category masks are made as helmets which encase the whole head. The third category of masks are made as a crest, they are worn over the head. The common subjects that African masks represent are Animals, Feminine beauty and Masks of dead or ancestral masks.

Animal masks generally represent the spirit of animals, and it is believed that the mask-wearer becomes a medium to speak to animals and in some cases, an animal mask becomes a symbol of specific virtues. Common animal subjects include the buffalo which represents strengthand crocodile, hawk, hyena, warthog and antelope.

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

Another common subject of African masks is feminine beauty generally represented as a woman’s face. The representation of faces is usually based on a specific culture’s ideal of feminine beauty. In many cases Female masks are carved with long curved eyelashes, almond-shaped eyes, thin chin, and traditional ornaments on their cheeks, which are considered good-looking traits.

Ancestor masks or masks of the dead is another common subject of African masks. In most African traditional cultures, the veneration of ancestors is a fundamental practice and these masks believed to connect them with their loved ones who have departed. Masks referring to dead ancestors are most often shaped after a human skull.

A special class of ancestor masks are those related to notable, historical or legendary people. The mwaashambooy mask of the Kuba people (DR Congo), for example, represents the legendary founder of the Kuba Kingdom, Woot, while the mgadyamwaash mask represents his wife Mweel.

African masks with their cultural and Spiritual importance along with mysterious representation are highly appreciated by Europeans. With an increasing demand they are widely commercialized and sold in most tourist-oriented markets and shops in Africa. As a consequence, the traditional art of mask-making has lost its privileged status to a certain extent. Although commercial masks in most cases, are less faithful reproductions of traditional masks, but still it has managed to somewhat reduce the spiritual importance of African Masks.

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