October is one of my favorite months. We are in the season of the “thinned veil” in Celtic tradition, of crisper air, of turning leaves, and of masked goblins. Masks have long been associated with festive holidays such as Halloween and Mardi Gras, the times when it is considered ok to wear a mask, whether literal or figurative. Masks can serve many purposes. We wear masks to impersonate characters. Sometimes the mask will serve as a disguise, or to hide our true features. The mask can also be an essential part of ritual ceremony. From the earliest times, cultures have used masks as an integral part of their culture. Where did this concept originate? In order to explore it, we can turn our attention to the tribal art of Africa as one important source for the development of the mask.
BRUNEAF (Brussels Non-European Art Fair) has become one of the world’s leading exhibitions of African tribal art. Scholars associated with the exhibit emphasize the spiritual role that the mask plays in African communities. Although Africa is a diverse continent of tribes, and each tribe has its unique culture, there are unifying themes in African art. African art emphasizes the human figure, often in a visual abstraction rather than in a naturalistic way. Sculpture is a major medium in African art. Much of their art was and is created for performance, in a ritual or ceremonial sense. And all African art has what Louis Senghor (Senegal’s first president) called “dynamic symmetry.” This term describes a non-linear scaling in which a small part of a design looks similar to a larger part; for example, diamond shapes at different or increasing scales.
African tribal art was in use long before recorded history. Cave drawings from the Sahara region in Niger date back some 6,000 years. The earliest extant sculptures come from the Nok culture of Nigeria and date c. 500 B.C.E. Traditional tribal art can be generally classified into three major categories.
Wooden masks are most prevalent in the western region. The masks are human, animal or mythical creature representations. Ceremonial masks can be designed and worn in three different ways: vertically – covering the face; as a helmet – covering the entire head; or as a crest – resting on the top of the head. Often, ceremonial masks are carved into a spirit representation that serves to possess the body and mind of the wearer. Statues are carved from wood, ivory or some type of stone, especially soapstone. And thirdly, decorative clothing, with its intricate embroidery and bead work, forms the final classification.
As a point of reference, let’s look at the tribal art of two regions in Africa—Kenya and Zimbabwe. Both cultures produce masks, sculptures and decorative clothing. Their methods differ, however, and show the enormous change in style since the days of British colonization.
Kenya is especially known for its sculptures. The Kamba Tribe is credited with producing some of the best wood carvers in Africa. Both animals and ritual masks feature prominently in their work. Small figurines are readily available for sale in even the remotest outpost. Like the decorative beading seen on Kenyan clothing, the masks and sculptures are status symbols, adorning the homes and bodies of the prominent tribal members. The Gusii and Abagusii Tribes of Kenya are famous for their soapstone sculptures.
Soapstone (or Kisii stone) is a metamorphic rock, one that has undergone both physical and chemical change through heat and pressure over time. Soapstone is largely composed of talc, and thus is rich in magnesium. It has been a medium of carving for thousands of years. The Palace of Knossos on Minoan Crete contained soapstone on its outer layers, as does the Cristo Redentor of Rio de Janiero. Soapstone is quarried from the Kenyan hills around Tabaka. It comes in colors varying from white (the easiest to carve), through shades of pink, to a deep red (the most difficult to carve).
Soapstone was also a favored medium of the artists of Rhodesia, or present-day Southern Zimbabwe. The Shona Tribe of Zimbabwe carved figurines of animal/human inter-morphosis. The most famous, of course, are the Zimbabwe Birds. These large figurines have become the national symbol of Zimbabwe. The 5 birds stood on the walls of the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe in the 11th century. Lost for many years, the birds were found by late-19th-century excavators funded by the De Beers diamond magnate, Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes himself took the birds to Cape Town. One still perches at his estate! The other 4 were returned to Zimbabwe as a gift of the South African government on their independence in 1980.
Since their independence, Zimbabwean artists have experienced a renaissance in the establishment of the Shona Sculptural Movement. This modern-day guild produces much of the “traditional” art, which is not traditional at all, but simply having traditional subjects. One of the most popular is the Ukama figure, Shona, for family. Figurines of parents and children in various combinations are easily available and can be cheaply acquired.
The same can be said for much contemporary African art. It is only traditional in that it uses traditional subject matter and appeals to the tourist trade. Authorities on African tribal art claim that it lost its spiritual power with the coming of Christianity. Late 19th- and early 20th-century missionaries often demanded that articles such as masks, sculptures, etc, be destroyed because of their association with pagan ritual and their supposed powers. Too bad, because we could use “powers” from somewhere these days!
About the only genuine African tribal art available today is that which is made and manufactured for the tourist trade. You can easily pick up a ceremonial mask at any souvenir shop in Nairobi, just don’t expect it to have belonged to some warrior come on hard times!