Researched by Kristen Stephens and Courtney Cunningham
Masks in Africa are traditionally used in religious or social events to represent the spirits of ancestors or bush sprits, and/or to help maintain order in the community. Each mask is worn with a costume, usually in a dance performance that is accompanied by percussion or music. During the performances, the dancer immerses himself or herself into the character and is believed to be spiritually replaced by that character; in some cases, the performer is believed to make contact with the ancestors in order to bring fort a message.
Most African masks are carved out of wood, as are these six masks, and masks nearly always have some sort of surface decoration. These decorations vary from carvings on the surface, to paint, to attachments of animal hair, to accumulated liquid offerings, or libations, that illustrate the reverence given to the mask. African masks are usually abstracted and have stylized faces, because they do not represent natural people or animals, but abstract ideas, abstracted characteristics, and supernaturals.
Ngil masks from the Fang culture of Gabon were traditionally used to keep social order; they were used in initiation ceremonies to introduce children to the rules of the society and also in rituals to pursue and to punish offenders. This Ngil mask has carved lines on the forehead that represent common scarification patterns, as well as a plate-like form on the top of the head that represents a traditional headdress. The face is painted white to remind people of the dead. While these masks have very gentle expressions, the performances are threatening and frightening, and the masquerades are only performed at night, by the light of torches. Researched by Courtney Cunningham
The Songye of the Democratic Republic of Congo produce this very geometric mask with channeled surfaces. The colors painted on the mask are highly symbolic, with white representing the positive traits like purity and peace, while black represents darkness and evil magic, and red is associated with courage, stamina, blood, and danger. This is most likely a female mask because the channels are thin and delicate, and the central feature is recessed rather than raised into a crest. The magical religious power of male Kifwebe masks associates them with the sun, while the female mask is associated with the moon and with benevolent spirits that have been reincarnated. Kifwebe masks are used to maintain law and order, and they are traditionally used in masquerades at initiations, new moon rituals, and at the death of or the inauguration of a new leader. Researched by Courtney Cunningham
All Lega culture art is associated with the Bwami association, a group reserved for men and women of the community who are strong examples of wisdom, virtue, and morality and masters of social relationships. High-ranking Bwami association members wear special caps and clothes and own stools, sculptures, masks, and other objects that illustrate their rank in Lega society.
Bwami association masks and the faces of sculptures are identifiable primarily by an oval shape, a heart-shaped brow, and a concave face, and the interior of the face is usually painted white with a mixture of kaolin clay and palm oil. Like this mask, Bwami objects are primarily functional; they mush be made correctly and in a traditional style, but their beauty, symmetry, and elaboration are largely incidental to their purpose, which is primarily to encourage and uphold good morals. Researched by Kristin Stephens
The Dan culture of Côte D’Ivoire and Liberia makes many masks that represent spirits of the wilderness, or “bush spirits,” that are used to keep social order and for entertainment purposes. The masks range from those with delicate, naturalistic features to those with strong geometric stylization.
The miniature mask in this exhibit is a personal object that is sometimes called a “passport mask.” These are small versions of larger masks that may be carried, worn on the shoulder, or worn attached to the leg. This is a miniature of the Deangle mask, which represents the Dan ideal of female beauty; Deangle masks are used during circumcision ceremonies to represent a female presence and to calm the frightened young boys. Researched by Courtney Cunningham
The Bembe of Tanzania make the Echawokaba mask for the rituals of the Alunga society. While the features of the mask are very stylized and may vary considerably from community to community, the mask generally represents a spirit of the wilderness or “bush spirit.” The eyes, which sometimes incorporate a star shape of diamond shape, are a mixture of the cat’s and the owl’s eyes—both creatures of the night. The nose and the teeth are also said to be modeled upon a cat’s. The mask is commonly worn with a crown of feathers and porcupine quills. So frightening and powerful is this mask that, when not in use, it is stored in a sacred cave. Researched by Courtney Cunningham
The Luba and the Sonye cultures, both from the Democratic Republic of Congo, make different versions of the Kifwebe mask, and this masks shows influences from both of these cultures—as well as influences from the art of other cultures in that region. The wide, concentric, red, black, and white stripes clearly identify this as a Kifwebe and suggest that is most likely a male mask. The slit eyes and the flat mouth ar similar to Luba Kifwebe masks, while the protruding, crested nose and the raffia are more characteristic of Songye Kifwebe masks. The heart-shaped face, however, is unusual among Kifwebe masks—although it is a common mask shape among other DRC cultures. Researched by Courtney Cunningham