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Mask Off

African Art in Ritual

African ritual masks play a fundamental role in the culture of indigenous peoples, always accompanied by symbolic and historical meanings. The specific implications associated with each mask varies widely by tribe. They always accompany any manner of celebration including: births, deaths, marriages, dances and festivals. The victorious and commanding rhythms of the drum stir up excitement and passion while the aura and presence of masks add depth and charisma to any occasion.

Usually, a particular bloodline or special initiation is a prerequisite for the artists that create masks and the performers who wear them. In most cases, mask making is an #art that is passed on from father to son. Carvers undergo many years of specialized apprenticeship until achieving mastery of the art.

Every mask has a specific meaning. For example, masks from the Senufo people of Ivory Coast have their eyes half closed, symbolizing a peaceful attitude, self-control, and patience. In Sierra Leone, and elsewhere, small eyes and mouth represent humility, and a wide, protruding forehead represents wisdom. In Gabon, large chins and mouths represent authority and strength.

Another theme found in African masks are ideals of feminine beauty. Masks of some tribes have breasts and ornamental scars, while others have almond shaped eyes, curved eyelashes, thin chin and ornaments.

Animals are commonly integrated into traditional African art. Carvings of animals can represent the spirit of animals, when applied to masks; the mask-wearer becomes a medium to speak to animals themselves and in many cases, an animal is also a symbol of specific virtues.

A common variation on the animal-mask theme is the composition of several distinct animal traits in a single piece of art; sometimes this is accompanied by human traits. Merging distinct animal traits together often represents unusual, exceptional virtue or high status. For example, the Poro secret societies of the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast have masks that celebrate the exceptional power of the society by merging three different "danger" symbols: antelope horns, crocodile teeth, and warthog fangs. Intangible forms and ideas are also expressed in African art. For example the Nwantantay masks of the Bwa people of Burkina Faso represent the flying spirits of the forest; since these spirits are deemed to be invisible, the corresponding masks are shaped after abstract, purely geometrical forms.

Ancestral Veneration is a common aspect of numerous traditions worldwide, remnants of this custom is seen on almost every continent and is still heavily practiced today. So it is not surprising that Ancestors are also a common subject for masks ritual. Veneration of the dead is often associated with fertility and reproduction so many of these types of masks contain sexual symbols. Masks are also often associated with notable, historical or legendary people.

In most traditional African cultures, the person who wears a ritual mask conceptually loses his or her human identity and turns into the spirit represented by the mask itself. This transformation of the mask wearer into a spirit usually relies on other practices, and is always accompanied by specific types of drum music and dance, or ritual costumes that contribute to conceal the mask-wearer's human identity. The mask wearer thus becomes a sort of medium that allows for a dialogue between the community and the spirits. Masked dances are a part of most traditional African ceremonies including coronation, weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies, initiation rites, and so on.

The most commonly used material for masks is wood, although other elements can be used, including light stones, and metals such as copper or bronze, different types of fabric, pottery, and more. Some masks are painted and some incorporate a wide array of ornamental items; including animal hair, horns, or teeth, seashells, seeds, straws, egg shell, and feathers.

Traditional masks are one of the most admired and well known art forms of Africa, elements found in mask making have most evidently influenced Europe and Western art; in the 20th century, artistic movements such as cubism, fauvism and expressionism have often taken inspiration from the vast and diverse heritage of African masks.

Since the popularization of traditional African masks they have become widely commercialized and sold in most tourist-oriented markets and shops. As a consequence, the traditional art of mask making has gradually ceased to be a privileged, status-related practice, and mass production of masks has become widespread. While, in most cases, commercial masks are (more or less faithful) reproductions of traditional masks, this connection is weakening as the logics of mass-production make it harder to identify the actual geographical and cultural origins.

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