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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Leopold Sedar Senghor   COSMOGONIC myth  Ideological rites of passage    fertility masks forms shapes material masks carver tools

Masks! O Masks!

Black mask red mask, you black and white masks Masks which the four points from which the Spirit blows
I greet you in the silence!


Leopold Sedar Senghor, from "Prayer to the Masks"

Sculpture is one the most distinctive African art forms. It is seen as one of Africa's most striking contributions. It has influenced some of the most famous European modern artists of this century. African sculpture is characterized by its stylization. Every tradition of sculpture has its own distinctive style. African sculpture is also known for its diversity, consistency, and abstraction. Every society sets its own sculptural standards. This creates a wealth of traditions in the plastic arts.

Consistency of style makes classification and identification of the African plastic structures possible. This consistency is a direct result of the African carvers' compliance to accepted standards. Their works have a tendency to reflect their cultures.

Another characteristic of African art is abstraction. The structured abstract character of African art receives lots of praise around the world. It can be argued that this abstraction is the highest achievement of African art. Abstraction in art relates to the non-natural, and the way to abstraction is eased by societies which value spirit over matter. African carvers sometimes leave the secure realm of the naturalness for the fuzzy world of the abstract. This abstraction often reflects a desire to give representation to a non-physical entity, something external to the realm of tangible reality. Needless to say that abstraction matters to a lot of African carvers and that it is an extremely important carving concept in Africa, a world dominated by the spiritual.

Masks hold a special place in African art. Actually, they constitute the most spectacular segment of African plastic art. African masks can only be truly appreciated in their African contexts. A study of African masks therefore requires a study of African belief systems.

Africans live foremost in syncretic environments. Syncretism is a mental disposition that allows fusion of several beliefs, concepts, and practices. The African carver's syncretic mentality allows him to create masks transcending visual reality.

Totemism is another common practice in Africa. A totem is usually an animal serving as the emblem of a clan or an ethnic group and often as a reminder of its ancestry. Totems commemorate acts and performances of heroic ancestors. Masks play an important role in totemic rituals.

African masks are also used in cosmogonic rituals. Cosmogony deals with the concept of the origin of the universe. African cosmogonies serve also as guides that enable us to fulfill our missions on Earth.

It is fair to say African masks are created for rituals which derive from a specific ideology. Ideology must be construed here as a philosophy of life, a set of concepts sustaining a specific world view. Our world view influences to a great extent the way we approach the external world. African ideology gives center stage to the spirit. Spirit is valued over matter. Thus the creation of masks fulfills a need to realize what is already experienced on the spiritual plane.

The African masks also function in an initiation framework. Masks are used in various initiation ceremonies. These initiation ceremonies are also called rites of passage and have placed an important role in African societies for centuries. These rites of passage usually demonstrate a shift in the cycle of life, a shift from childhood to adulthood.


Myths hold a high level of importance in African societies. Actually, they hold the key to the comprehension of the world view of some African societies. For some, myths are manifestations of the unconscious. For others, they are manifestations of human needs for spiritual connection. The creation of myths starts with the human desire for some meaning to life and the universe. The end result of this exercise is the elaboration of cosmogonies. Cosmogonies declare some events and facts sacred.

Cosmogonic rituals are specific to each tradition. They often include the reenactment of primordial events. They give information about the ethnic group's origin, the genealogy of the founding ancestors, and the migration patterns. Cosmogonic rituals however go beyond the ancestral past. They include mythological teachings converting individual consciousness to communal consciousness. Cosmogonic rituals allow the masked dancers and the participating audience to connect to the higher cosmic order. In other words, they link the individual to eternity, and situates the individual in the cosmic order to give the individual a guideline and rules for conduct.

In traditional Africa, cosmogonic masks represent supernatural forces which determine the destiny of the community. A paradigm of African cosmogony is Dogon cosmogony.


African art expresses the relationship between God and human beings. African art tends to express harmony, unity, and balance. It is essentially a populist form. It is designed for the masses and is therefore devoid of elitism. Its main objective is to unify the community. The artist takes his or her inspiration from religious and moral values. Religion, here, must be construed as the expression of beliefs about the supernatural world and the foundation of ethics.

Central to African ideology is fusion and oneness with Nature. It is a sense of infinite unity with the cosmic order. The rituals Africans perform merely consecrate this absorption into this supreme reality which extend their everyday existence. The African is able to link to this Supreme Reality via the soul. The soul for the African is the animating principle of life. The soul is immortal and separates from the human body at death. The Kemites (Ancient Egyptians) called the soul Ka; the Dogon call it Nyama. This immortal entity is universal energy that permeates everything in Nature. Everything is linked, man and animal, the plants and the minerals. They are all linked by this cosmic energy. The African gods and goddesses are mere personifications of natural forces permeated with this cosmic essence. The link between humanity and animals and plants can be found in the totemic character of African culture. For the African the veneration of certain animals and plants is quite natural. This explains why heads of animals are featured in numerous African masks. Ideological masks in the form of animal heads appear a lot in rituals and represent mythological beings. In general, the masks are seen as dwellings of invisible forces. They are seen as incarnations of the cosmic energy permeating every thing in Nature. In other words, masks are traps of the spirit.


Since time immemorial initiation rites have played a preponderant role in African societies. Referring to ancient texts, we know, for instance, that the Sphinx served as an entrance to the solemn vaults where the initiate underwent the tests of initiation. The highest form of knowledge was dispensed in those days by mystery schools which functioned as secret societies. The clergy that these mystery schools produced held the real power in Ancient Egypt. They set the tone and the direction of Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt owed her brilliance to this Mystery System. Initiation to the Mystery System was very selective. It was not open to just anyone. Before initiation, the neophyte had to pass numerous tests of endurance, courage, and intelligence.

Secret societies are very common on the African Continent. Their structures vary but they all have the same underlying objective: to maintain and enforce the laws of the community. They exercise control over the community in addition to their role in the education process. These secret societies have many functions. Masks are created for specific functions. One of most important of such functions is the initiation of the youth into adulthood. For the African, life is a series of transitions. Each transition calls for a specific set of rites. Rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood are seen as the most dramatic and the ones bearing the most importance. They carry the most binding and determining value. Customarily, before the rites of passage the adolescents are secluded in an isolated place where they are given instructions on the laws and taboos of the community. They are taught how to perform various rituals. In a sense, it is tradition perpetuating itself. In some instances, they have to learn secret languages. In general, the initiate must take an oath of secrecy. They must not reveal what they just learned, nor alter their knowledge out of respect for the process. They must pledge to uphold the tradition.

The initiate must submit to tests of endurance, courage, and intelligence and a ritiualistic death and resurrection. The rite of passage is a symbolic rebirth. During the process, which marks the initiate is given a new name and a new identity.The rite of passage symbolizes a transformation and transition from childhood to adulthood. The initiate pledges allegiance to the tradition and commits to build and maintain the community, because collective work is necessary, for upholding tradition.

The masks used in these rites of passage personify ancestors who taught the community the tradition. They are symbols of Law and Order within the community.


A mask is the incarnation of preternatural forces. Fertility was of vital importance for the African. Fertility rites in Africa are based on the premise that man can conjure up preternatural forces dwelling in masks to promote fecundity in the earth, animals, and human beings.

For the African, the earth is sacred and belongs to the ancestors. Hence, the harvest is successful if blessed by the ancestors. Agricultural fertility rites were done in stages, from sowing to harvest. The object of these rites is to please and appease the ancestors.

The African, in a sense, is very conservative. Any breach in normalcy, for instance, irregular rains, or sterility of the women is seen as a serious disruption of Nature's sacred order. This entails the gods must be angry and must be appeased at any cost. The African performs rites to restore this perceived normalcy, this sacred natural order, in order to feel more secure about his or her life.

For the African, the earth is female. She is a life giver, a mother, Mother Earth. Mother Earth's fertility and female fertility are seen as connected. Some masks are used in more secular domains. They are used to maintain law and order within the community. Of import are the following functions: o Healing rites
o Divination
o Hunting
o Social Control


African masks vary in forms, sizes, and shapes. Some masks are part of costumes and headdresses. Some masks are two-dimensional structures designed to only cover the face. Other masks may be classified as genuine three-dimensional sculptures. The latter are carved using special tree-trunks. Usually, the wearer of the mask is a dancer. Dance, for the African, is life. The African cannot conceptualize life without dance. He or she dances at every ceremony. The African has created dances to celebrate birth, puberty, good harvest, marriage, and death. Virtually, any ceremony calls for dance as a cultural expression. Dance is in a sense, the lifeline of the culture; it allows the culture to perpetuate itself. In case the dancer wears a mask that is part of a headdress, the headdress has an opening to allow the dancer to visualize the audience and gauge his performance. The headdress has another function: it makes the dancer look excessively tall in order to give weight to the belief we are dealing with a preternatural force. Some masks are carried over the shoulder.

African masks, in general, vary in size. Most of them, however, are the size of the human face. Others are larger than the human face. Masks representing animals also come in different sizes. The larger than life size masks are used mainly to make them more dramatic.

Wood is the material used par excellence to create African masks. This is due to the abundance of the rain forest. Different types of wood are used depending upon the impression the carver wants to create. Many types of wood are at the disposal of the carver: ebony, mahogany, teak, plus a slew of other varieties of wood are abundant in the African rain forest. Very seldom, the wood used kept its natural color. The carver stained the masks or colored them with vegetable dyes.

Ivory was used in the past to create masks, but even then it represented a very tiny percentage of the material used to carve African masks. Ivory, owing to its nature, lends itself to very complex carvings.

Other materials are used. Brass, for instance, is used in Ashantiland. Beads are also used quite extensively. Beads serve as decorative items on many masks.


Training in woodcarving in traditional Africa was usually given in a system of apprenticeship. Woodcarving was very rarely a full-time job. Woodcarving experts worked part-time and supplemented their incomes with farming or other activities. In some societies, woodcarvers were also blacksmiths.

The young apprentice learned the secrets of the trade under the guidance of woodcarving experts. The duration of the training was about three years. The apprentice was often the son of the woodcarver. Woodcarving tradition was transmitted from father to son through many generations. The apprentice must have exhibited, beforehand, a gift for carving. His first assignments were to reproduce faithfully existing prototypes, for he had to pledge allegiance to the style of carving of his community. In general, the carver enjoyed prestige in his community.

The woodcarving tools are made by the blacksmiths. Iron axes are used to fell the trees. Carving is then done in green wood, for wood hardens as it dries up, thus becomes very hard to carve. Chisels are used to carve out the inside of the masks. However, the most important carving tool is the adze, whose blade is set at right angles to that of an axe.

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The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

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