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Find Out All the Details about African Tribal Masks and Their Meanings and What Masks Are

31.05.2021
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African masks

African Masks Information

The beginning of the manufacture and use of ritual African masks can be traced back to the Paleolithic era. For example, in the caves of South Africa, rock paintings have been preserved depicting a hunter dressed as a bird and with an African ritual mask on his face. In the future, each tribe developed its own traditions of making ritual masks.

For example, the unusual African wood carved masks of the Mosi tribe are often made in the form of a vertical plate in carved ornaments. And the unusual masks of the ancient tribes of the Ivory Coast are famous for their elongated face oval and slanted eye slits.

African masks designs were most massively produced and used by sedentary tribes. Among the ancient hunter-gatherer families, who constantly roamed from place to place, the ritual of creating and worshiping masks was less common.

Features of African Tribal Masks and Their Meanings Who Came to Us from Distant Africa

Since the product is used for different purposes, the appearance and design of the masks can be different. Older people will not wear African cultural masks designed for the younger generation and vice versa. By this attribute, you can find out what social status the person wearing it has.

Also, African face masks can mimic the face of their owner. But at the same time, masks have some peculiarities in the lines of the drawing. Such patterns are usually not applied by Africans to the body.

Previously, Europeans found these products primitive, scary, and unnecessary. But then their opinion changed. They even began to copy patterns on antique African masks and use them in interior design and other items.

On the one hand, African tribal masks seem primitive, but on the other, they can add some flavor to the interior.

Types of African Masks and Their Meanings

African animal masks

Ritual Mask

Traditional African masks go back to the death mask, which arose from the desire to preserve the appearance of the deceased. Death masks have been known since the Neolithic. They were made of plastic material (wax, clay, plaster, etc.) by applying to the face and taking an impression. Later, for the posthumous famous African masks, animal skin, stone, wood, metal, fabric, etc. were used.

Theatrical Mask

antique African masks

The mask has been an important attribute of theatrical performance since ancient times. It is often an emblematic representation of the performing arts in general. African animal masks historically came out of the ritual mask. Traditionally it exists both in the form of an overlay on the face (theater of Ancient Greece, Buddhist mystery theater, comedy del, etc.), and in the form of a mask-make-up (Japanese theater of Noo and Kabuki). Depicts a “stranger’s face” or represents “impersonally”, “timelessness”, hiding the face/part of the face under a neutral bandage.

The theatrical mask makes it possible to play a generalized, non-individualized image, to display a universal emotion. The emblem of the mask allows you to recognize different groups of characters. So, for example, in the ancient Greek theater, crying and laughing African masks with feathers are signs of tragic and comic characters.

Round African Masks as a Dramatic Way of Depicting a Person

African face masks

The dramatic type-mask is a schematic individualized image of a person associated with the search for common universal human qualities (role, gender, social, etc.). It is close in function to the theatrical role, opposite to the dramatic character. The African sun masks type lives in the drama due to external events, does not undergo internal changes, does not develop, retaining the same features from beginning to end.

Severely limited behavior of the mask-type, guessed, predictable due to this, his actions allow the “theater of masks” in some cases even to do without written drama, limiting itself only to a play-script, in which the plot, a sequence of dramatic situations are recorded, but monologues and dialogues of characters. “Theater of masks” is based on improvisation (as, for example, in the theatrical practice of the com media dell’arte). The actor of the “theater of masks”, as a rule, specializes in playing only one role – a certain type of mask.

Masks of Laughter and Tears in Ancient Greek Theater

The artists donned African art masks and costumes, following a mythological script that relied heavily on the dichotomy between gods and humans. It was the actor’s way of showing whatever personality he wanted. Whether it was a human, god, demigod, or monster appearance, it had value in the story being told.

Mask of Otherworldly Origin of Man

African ceremonial masks are highly regarded by artifact collectors and museums throughout the western world. They are usually interesting only for their aesthetic qualities. They represent multipurpose matrices of ancient knowledge of ancestors, keeping the secrets of creation and the otherworldly origin of mankind.

African Masks Facts

Magic attributes were worn during rituals. Ritual dances and theatrical performances using African war masks have accompanied important events in human life and were the key to success in major endeavors. Wedding rituals gave hope for a happy marriage, abundant offspring, and prosperity. Funeral rituals with masks prepared the soul of a deceased person for the transition to another world.

Ritual dances before hunting and war promised rich booty and success in battle. Harvest festivals were dedicated to the patron deities of agriculture.

What Are African Masks Used For?

African war masks

The costumed initiation rites marked the transition of adolescents into adulthood. Masks with military symbols were used in the events for young men. Female magical attributes reminded me of the coming family life and household responsibilities. Masks protected a person from evil spirits.

Small specimens turned into a body amulet and were worn around the neck or belt. The “mood” of the mask was consistent with the scope of its application. In Liberia, the head masks of an angry beast were worn by the authorities in the tribes of Liberia.

The minister, dressed in a frightening “uniform”, caused fear and humility among the people. For Abomi, King of Benin, the mask replaced the portrait of the deceased mother. The object was made in the form of a pretty woman’s face.

Difference between Types of African Masks

African wood masks (photos showing the diversity of primitive art are presented later in the article) had their own characteristics. Tribes reproduce their appearance in different ways. Images can be three-dimensional and flat, schematic-simplified and realistic.

There are also intertribal differences in masks:

  • Prototype character. Masks repeat the appearance of people, animals, or depict mythological creatures.
  • Social differences. Masks of men and women are differentiated. For closed communities, their own ritual attributes are provided. An example is the masks of warriors or clairvoyants.
  • Special purpose. The appearance of the ancient African masks is associated with the rite for which it was intended. The face of the funeral attributes is calm and mournful. The masks for the fancy-dress parties represent fun.
  • Wearing style There are masks for hiding the face and for putting on the head or body.

Samples of folk art reflect the creative personality of the master carver. The manufacturer works in line with the tradition of the tribe while developing his style.

African Masks Designs and Meanings

African masks facts

The visual features of the masks are explained by their belonging to different peoples and the specifics of their use — funeral, wedding, and hunting attributes do not look the same.

What are the differences and how to identify African masks:

  • The way of interpreting the character. Physical appearance is often with deliberate distortion of features. For example, in the Chokwe tribes, masks have large foreheads and narrow slit eyes.
  • Mood. Military masks are given a formidable expression. Burial specimens appear peaceful or sad.
  • Colors. Black and dark brown masks are numerous. Clay red and white specimens are less common in African masks history.
  • Symbolic elements — geometric notches, color painting, and hairstyle details. The expressive decor helps researchers to establish the “nationality” of the mask. For example, the products of the Sepik tribe of Guinea are decorated with colored patterns of lines and dots.

What Are African Masks Made Of?

Primitive art influenced the formation of international art. Today, traces of African exoticism in all parts of the world.

What is the interaction of civilizations manifested in:

  • Modern masks are sometimes decorated with buttons.
  • The Brazilian Carnival and African costume rituals have common roots.
  • The complex ritual performances of the tribes of Nigeria are comparable to the European theater.
  • “African wood masks” — a photo that made Man Ray famous. In 1926, a surrealist painter created a series of photographs of a model posing next to exotic objects from Africa.
  • Geometric and cruciform notches on pagan products are features of borrowing from Christian and Muslim cultures.

African wood masks are a magical attribute that African tribal masks influenced the art of. Works of primitive art, simple and effective at the same time, inspire artists and become objects of desire for collectors.

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