African tribal masks are draped in an aura of the fantastical. You gaze into the elongated face of a Fang mask, made by the Fang people of Cameroon, with its deep scooped eyes, tubular nose, and melancholy mouth, or the fat, horned circle of a Baule mask, from the Ivory Coast, with its teardrop eyes and grim, square mouth, and beneath the flow of your thoughts, something touches you. You can almost sense the magic African culture ascribes to these masks which are considered “live objects” by the tribes that create them.
Among Africa’s highly diverse cultures, numbering in the hundreds with separate languages and religious beliefs, African art generally serves a function in its creation, and tribal masks in particular perform a purpose in African culture. Masks fall into two main categories. Face masks cover only the face, and helmet masks cover the entire head. Within these two groups are agricultural masks, dance masks, and masks used in rites of initiation and passage. Made from gold, bronze, ivory, tin or stone, wood-carved, clay-sculptured, woven of plant fibers, or made of bark, feathers, or cloth, the mask can be painted, decorated with feathers and beads, or undecorated, leaving only the asymmetry of the maker’s design to convey its power. The embodiment of art and spirituality, mask are worn during festivals, celebrations, and ritual ceremonies to purify, honor, entertain, initiate, or bless.
Abstract expressionism is the most outstanding feature in the art of African masks and they may seem “cold” in their appearance, but every aspect of a mask carries meaning. A flat face symbolizes the inward man or spirit; horns represent power; narrowly curved eyes and a sinister look gives warning. The maker attempts to capture symbolic values such as compassion, or to convey emotion. The striking asymmetry of African tribal masks has influenced Western art and can be seen in the paintings of Picasso and Modigliani.
The one pictured is mine, brought back by Michelle from her trip to Africa last year.