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West African Masks

Masks play an important role in the history of humankind; their use can be traced back to the hunter epoch of the Stone Age culture.

The art of the West African tribal societies is closely connected to rituals, traditions and festivities. Masks represent gods or guardian and ancestor spirits and protect against evil forces and illness or are connected to fertility, a good harvest and prosperity. Masks are used during celebrations or ceremonial festivities like initiation or ancestor worship.

In mask dances and rituals, the border between this world and the world of spirits and ancestors blurs. The wearer of the mask prepares himself alone away from the celebrating crowd to become the "voice" of the spirit. For the duration of the ritual he steps into this role; he talks with a strange voice, his movements and gestures differ from his normal behavior.

The wearer of the mask often incorporates a moral authority; education and instruction, social control and even imposing of punishment and re-establishing of order are important elements. In some rituals as in initiation practices, the wearer of the mask acts as a master of ceremony.

During the ritual, the mask hides the identity of its wearer; the hair and back of the head are mostly covered. As a rule, the wearers of the masks are men.

The multitude of different masks from the African continent is innumerable. Many masks represent a hybrid between human being and animal; their symbolism is hard to understand, the magic core is hardly apparent to the uninitiated.

Moreover, the masks strongly vary in their symbolic language and according to the tribe and event they are used in. The basic material of most masks is wood; clay, brass, copper or bronze and even bark can be used as a basis. Cloth, leather, shells or paint decorate many masks.

The fabrication of masks was a respected occupation. Besides skilled artisanship, a vast knowledge of the ritual and spiritual symbolism was needed. This knowledge was passed on from one generation to another within the same family.

Our special exhibition presents some masks from important centers of art in West Africa.

  • picture: Makishi mask (colored bark; Chokwe, Sambia / Angola
  • picture: horn mask with bird (wood; West Africa)
  • picture: face mask (wood, cloth, shells and pearls; Baule, Ivory Coast)
  • horn mask (wood and pressed metal; West Africa)
  • painted mask (clay; Ivory Coast)
  • antelope mask top peace (painted wood, West Africa)