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The Role of Masks in black Africa

The majority of religious rites practiced in traditional Africa were accompanied by music, songs and masked dancers.

When it was not being used the mask was stored in a sacred place. When it became old and no longer used, it was replaced by another. A mask was never thrown away without taking some precautions: its destruction was accompanied by certain rites intended to transfer the occult forces that it held to another mask. Sometimes it was put in a special place, a cave or special hut in order that it would disintegrate with time and erosion by termites.

In contrast to the way they are exposed in museums, in Africa, masks were often accompanied by a long cloak made from fibers or raffia that would completely hide the person that wore it.

When he walked through the village wearing his mask, the wearer walked solemnly. During the ceremonies, he could carry out a real whirlwind of dances. Ritual dance steps were attributed to each mask.

Each mask, generally had its own appointed dancer, and this could last for several decades. The mask stayed in the family, handed down from generation to generation, or within a secret society.

Not all masks have the same supernatural powers. There are ‘womens masks’ which could be seen by all: women, children, and those that were not ‘initiated’ in a brotherhood. The other masks, supposedly charged with tremendous power, could only be seen by men that had been initiated. When the wearers of the masks passed through the village, often at night, villagers knew they were coming by the sound of a particular and recognizable instrument. The women, children, and uninitiated had to quickly hide for fear of incurring great danger such as illness or even death.

The arrival of the masks during a ceremony was paralleled by the arrival of the spirits in the village, hence the terror that accompanied them.

The mask wearer became the receptacle for an invisible force. Taken over by the spirit he represented, the man was no longer himself, he lost his personality and he became the spirit that was acting through him. The presence of the spirit was as dangerous for the bearer of the mask as it was for those assisting the ceremony. The mask wearer, entirely possessed by his religious faith, truly felt he had turned into the genie that he was supposed to be evoking. Without the bewitching power of these rites, the inebriation of the dance and the music, the dancers never would have had the courage to allow themselves be taken over by these invisible genies, by the souls of the dead.

The statues were realistic and static in contrast to the world of masks which facilitated the passage to all that was supernatural, unreal and dynamic. The masks gave form to inform psychological forces whose mysterious nature made them all the more terrifying The masks catalyzed  ancestral fears of being confronted with nature. During funeral ceremonies, when faced with the horror of death, they had a psychotherapeutic role. The masked dancer could free himself from the world of the living, and feel in complete ecstasy, plunging the audience into the atmosphere of a sacred world.

Certain masks have the form of animals. This does not mean that this mask isn’t the evocation of an ancestor, because for an African, it is entirely possible for an ancestor to take the form of an animal or half man, half animal. Or else, the animal mask might evoke a collective story in which that animal had played a particular role.

For the most part, masks were used in moments of crisis for the village, in order to solve existing problems, through the presence of genies or the ancestors that they incarnated.

The masks were also used to mark important moments in the collective life of the village or periods of change. This might be to celebrate agricultural labor and the genies of nature who had the power to increase wealth and riches. This might be to implore the rains to come, or yet to battle against an illness or an attack on the village by another ethnic group, or to celebrate certain rites of passage such as the initiation of adolescents or the celebration of a death.

Organizing these celebrations was the prerogative of a more or less secret society or brotherhood.

The initiation of adolescents also held an important place. The initiation corresponded to a change in status and was prepared in a place outside of the village. Here, the adolescents underwent a series of painful physical tests (circumcision for the boys and in certain ethnic groups excision for the girls). It was not the adolescents themselves that were masked, but rather the elders who had given them their apprenticeship and taught them the roles of life within their society. The elders believed that the masks gave them greater authority and that the young person being initiated would be unable later to recognize his master. Sometimes, the young initiates too wore the masks. During the course of the initiation, the young person underwent a symbolic death in order to be reborn into adult society. During the rites, the masked spectacles allowed the transmission of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next.

Another important phase, funerals, were often considered as the defunct’s initiation into the afterlife. Generally, this meant processions and masked dances in the street as well as in the defunct’s home. The aim was to facilitate the defunct’s passage into his new status, to avoid him returning to haunt the living, and to allow him instead to pass on his strength to his descendants.

Finally, masks could be worn by members of a brotherhood or secret society that played an important role in running the political and judiciary affairs of the villages. Certain societies even constituted a state within a state. These brotherhoods tried to control village social life, to give justice, and to correct those that behaved badly. For example, when a villager behaved badly, members of the brotherhood wood encircle his house at night or mistreat him until he accepted to right his ways. The fear of these invisible spirits, materialized by the masks, along with the anonymity they brought their wearers, acted as  an effective means of pressure.

Form, usage, and the hierarchic importance of masks

Masks that are apparently similar may have different uses.

Masks made on the Ivory Coast by the Dan, the Ngere (or Gere, or Kran) and the Wobe, present hierarchic and functional differences that cannot be seen on the outside. For them, the mask is a means of communication with the great God Zlan. However, the targeted intermediaries are the spirits of the ancestors, invoked through the masks. The power of the masks over them depends on the social prestige of its owner, as he could not achieve high ranking without their help, and his success is proof that they have favored him. An inherited mask does not lose its power over the ancestors. And so, the more the owner of the mask was held in esteem in his lifetime the greater its power would be. The mask’s prestige is then an acquired characteristic that cannot be seen on the outside, but only from information gathered in the field.

The masks of the Dan people can move up the hierarchy, normally at the death of their owner, and if he managed to attain a high standing position in his lifetime. In contrast, masks can also move down the hierarchy if they turn out to be ineffective or if they are damaged. Masks must be beautiful in order to please the ancestors. Today, damaged masks are sold in western auction houses, whereas in the past they would have been thrown away.

Remaining with the Dan, if there wasn’t a pacifying mask in the town ( large mask with animal traits and a moveable lower jaw), a mask from a lower rank could be promoted to carry out the task.