Sunday, November 14, 2010

African Masks


African masks play an important role in the various cultures and tribes found throughout the African continent. Generally speaking, African masks are used in intricate religious ceremonies as a way to conjure or communicate with spirits or ancestors. Visually and aesthetically speaking, masks will differ not only from culture to culture, but also in the intended purpose of each mask. Furthermore, African masks will also vary in the types of materials used to construct each individual mask. In many African cultures and tribes, they have an appointed member attributed with the purpose of designing and fabricating the masks. This person is usually referred to as an African tribal artists.
Each tribal artist is expected to perfect specific carving techniques associated with its various social and religious connotations and apply them to each individual mask, depending on the intended purpose of that mask. Typically, a tribal artists learns his skill by becoming an apprentice of the master tribal artists. More often than not, it takes many years for tribal artists to master his art through rigorous training. In many African cultures and societies, the task is passed down from father to son, through generation after generation.
The African tribal artist is a respected member of his/her community because of the important role African masks play in their culture. African masks are made from a number of different materials, but some of the most commonly used include wood, bronze, ivory, terra cotta, and textiles. African masks often represent animals as well as specific deities. Furthermore, the complexities of African masks not only relate to the intricate and varying religions and belief systems found in Africa, but specifically to the way the are constructed.
For example, Temne Tribe will often use masks that have small eyes and mouths. The reason that they are made in such a manner is to represent humility and humbleness. This goes to show that not only are African masks devised out of religious origins, but the actual manner in which they appear also has a specific purpose or idea that is trying to be communicated. African masks are used in ceremonies that are in their own nature very expressive and complex. These rituals often involve specific dances and chants that are believed to establish a form of communication with certain spirits or ancestors. The role that African masks play in rituals is quite apparent, but the rituals themselves are so complicated that many who study African culture have yet been able to fully grasp. A reason for this is that many of the tribes and cultures that use African masks tend to keep their rituals secret.
Because these rituals have an important religious and social function, tribes people will often not divulge much information to outsiders regarding their nature and/or purpose. Though the role a type of African mask may play in a particular ceremony or ritual may not always be understood, the aesthetic qualities and workmanship employed in creating these wonderful masks can allow them to be considered real works of art.