Magic Of The African Mask

African Masks are among the most fantastic works of African art and their variety and magic is unique. Ancestors in particular, but also nature spirits, use the medium of the mask to reach the living and to make their wishes known.

The African imagination reaches is climax in the mask dance. Out of a collaboration of carvers, costume makers, specialists in ritual, musicians and dancers a group art form emerges, whose complex structure of ritually defined choreography, noises, rhythms and music achieve a considerable degree of fantasy and intensity.  In the old masquerade traditions, the urgency of each dancer’s performance derived from the conviction, “I am not myself.”  It was not he who danced; it was he who was danced.  A being or spirit entered his body, thus assuming the outward form and communicating in this physical embodiment with the circle of living and visible onlookers.  States of possession and trance, still an everyday occurrence in the voodoo religions of the Republic of Benin or the Caribbean suggest the nature of this mental transgression to borderlines.  In other words, dancing a mask was ideally not an expression of individual skill but a veritably religious act, of devotion to a supernatural power.  In many regions this devotion was and still is expedited by ritual regulations governing the carving of masks and the preparation of the dancers for their performance.  The dancing of masks is surrounded by an entire liturgy, designed to encourage the entry of the supernatural into the mundane world.

This mystical interpretation may not be to everyone’s taste and the extent to which a mask dancer in fact identifies with some transcendent being is controversial.  For this reason it would be advisable to assume a range of variation, extending from complete embodiment through various degrees of inspiration to an “actors portrayal” of a supernatural mask spirit.

In contrast to the institutionalized world religions that dominate today, African religious beliefs often differed from one area to the next.  The uniformity of these official churches in both the East and West has always been foreign to the strongly regionally or locally colored African forms of faith. The lack of a written language proved an advantage when it cam to the individual religious imagination, since it worked against the emergence of any form of bibliolatry or dogmatic rigor.  African oral traditions left great leeway for personal interpretation.  In many cases, Africans have even succeeded in integrating imported Western religions into their older cults, expanding the spectrum of religious forms of expression.

Instead of a supreme being or a canonically established pantheon of divinities, the African heavens are populated by innumerable spirits and beings.  This so-called animism, fought by Christian missionaries and Moslem marabouts, is rich in transcendental forms of existence that populate the continuum between this life and the life beyond.  The continent of ancestors alone is enormous, and savannah, woodlands and waters abound with nature entities and spirits.  These are augmented by more clearly defined notions of gods, as with the Yoruba, whose beliefs recall the polytheism of European antiquity.

In many depictions of animals, or depictions of spirits in animal form, not only actual species of the bush or savannah may be represented but mythical animal beings as well.


4 Responses to “Magic Of The African Mask”

  1. 1 Kalian Dushoki
    June 19, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    This is a very informative piece. would you please tell me where I can get this masks and other African Artifacts? Your assistance will be highly appreciated. Thanks.

    • 2 kalimoney
      June 19, 2010 at 8:36 pm

      Thanks Kalian. You can find many artifacts like these and many more from all over Africa on afrikboutik.com. Check it out.

  2. June 21, 2010 at 3:04 am

    Hello Kalimoney, this writing was very informative and I enjoyed it greatly. I wanted to ask you if you would like to write an article about African art that I can feature on my blog. You can email me at aninvestmentinart@gmail.com. Keep up the good work!

    • June 23, 2010 at 8:21 am

      Sure, I’ll be contacting you soon.

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June 2010


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