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African Masks : Lost in Translation

Africa masks can be traced back to well past Paleolithic times. These art objects were, and are still made of various materials; including leather, metal, fabric and various types of wood. Old African masks predating the colonization of the continent, were more than just an artifact or piece of art work to be hung on a wall. They held very strong symbolic ties to the culture of the tribe they were created. The viewer of the mask will never truly know its significance unless born into that tribe. Masks often represent spirits or ancestors. They can be worn as one part of an elaborate costume for a dance, or can be made for special rituals where the mask would not be preserved.

Two common types of masks depicted are human and animal. African tribes have strong ties to nature and use masks as a way to communicate with spirits and the animals inhabiting the region the tribes are located within. For example, if hyenas disturbed the crops of a village, the village would hold a ceremony where the bearer of a mask with hyena attributes would ask the creatures to keep away from the area. The hyena mask could also be used in a prayer or dance if the tribe finds a spirit to be causing this occurrence.

The bearer of a mask takes on the essence of the spirit the mask represents. Crocodile, buffalo, hawk, and antelope are common animals portrayed in masks. A mask with antelope features represent agriculture and the growth of crops. Crocodile teeth and fangs can be carved to represent power, antelope horns depict growing roots of plants for prosperity or strength. Some masks are carved for a human spirit but will have animal features incorporated to represent certain virtues of the animal depicted.

Masks depicted as human spirits are not made to be a portrait of that spirit but are designed to be stylized from an abstract subject. The carver does not decorate the mask based on his own style, he follows traditional guidelines for creating the masks passed down through generations. Female masks are typically portrayed with almond shaped eyes, ornamental scars, filed teeth, or remarkable hair styles. Each attribute is considered the personification of beauty within the tribe and are known to be used in fertility rituals or to represent ancestors.

There are numerous uses for masks within a tribe. They can be used to call upon ancestors, initiations, ward off spirits, bring crops back to life, storytelling, rituals for the dead and so much more. Masks are an essential part of West African religion and culture. Yet, the cruel act of gentrification tarnished these precious artifacts. During the colonial era, a mass of Africa's artistic heritage were taken from their homeland to be sold or traded in the West. Ancient masks and sculptures that were originally involved in the ritual lives of the powerful and of ordinary people in Africa are now housed in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To add salt to the wound, many pieces have been replicated for sale on websites such as and Amazon, completely removing the cultural and historical significance of these majestic works of art. Sadly, this is a common occurrence stemming from the colonization of ancient, indigenous groups; which is why I find it imperative to share and celebrate the history of Africa’s art and indigenous people.

When is the last time you've seen an African mask? Where at?

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The Art of African Masks: Exploring Cultural Tradations by Carol Finley

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