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: Three African Masks


Martin L. Friedman

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
It is a paradox that our belated interest in aboriginal arts manifests itself at precisely the time when most of these native forms of expression are disappearing. Museums and private collectors are eagerly searching for the magnificent relics of the sinking traditions of Africa, the South Seas, and the Americas. These societies left no written records and we know more about the history, aspirations, and visual arts of the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations than we do about the more recent native cultures of West Africa. However, the awesome sculpture of Africa that can still be found, such as the three carved masks which have now entered the Institute’s collection, do provide insight into this vast and unfamiliar world.We do know, for example, that powerful feudal empires, at their height in Africa between the sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries, extended from the Nigerian coast to the eastern limits of the Congo. These were absolute autocracies in which great power was accorded the king, whose identification with legendary or divine ancestors gave force and form to the development of an elaborate hierarchy of vassals, warriors, and slaves. Many of these hereditary ruling classes traced their ancestry to the northern invaders from the Arab-dominated Sudan: this is evident in the diffusion throughout Negro Africa of characteristically Arabic abstract visual forms, which are conspicuously mingled with indigenous naturalistic traditions of black Africa.Until quite recently, many Western art historians assumed, primly, that native peoples living in a condition of technological impoverishment did not and could not produce “high” art. The intense, often disquieting artistic expression of African “savages” were regarded as curiosities, crude and inadequate as sculpture when compared to the lofty ideals of the “classical legacy.” And even now there is still a tendency on the part of enlightened observers, suddenly aware of the grandeur of these fading cultures, to lump all productions of primitive societies together and to see them as undifferentiated. While in African art there is clearly some consistency in the types of objects produced, through more or less similar general motivations, the variety found in these forms is a reflection of many disparate, long-established traditions and distinct cultures.The masks of Africa, impressive for the diversity of their forms and for their wide range of variations on the human physiognomy, constitute an excellent introduction to African art. Masks were central objects in initiations as well as commemorative and funerary rites, and were utilized during vivid ceremonies conducted by ancestor cults and secret societies. In contrast to the related carvings of ancestors or powerful deities made for use within a shrine or an intimate enclosure, masks were intended for public display. They usually formed the major element of elaborate dance costumes and were seen by the tribe within the dramatic context of the sound, light, and movement of the spectacle. Holes drilled around the periphery of the mask held a variety of ornaments such as bells, beading, plumes, and assorted vegetation, which covered the body of the dancer, transforming his identity for the sacred occasion. (The African dance costume reached such complexity, as in the case of the Guinea Coast Poro Society rituals, that the relatively small face masks virtually disappeared under a mass of straw and foliage.)To see a mask isolated in a museum is as removed from the original experience as looking at a fragment of classical sculpture which was once an intrinsic part of the decoration of a long-extinct temple. From the vantage of today’s aesthetics, such a separation of function and form is not necessarily a deterrent to enjoying the work, however, for it can stand on its impressive formal qualities alone.Thoroughly individualistic, yet reflecting fully developed carving styles, the three African masks in the collection of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts are excellent introductions to the impressive sculpture of three different cultures: the Baluba tribes of the eastern Belgian Congo, the Sudanese Bobo peoples, and the Cameroons grassland tribes.1 Each mask in the group exemplifies a traditional type, combining various formal elements from its particular locale and faithful in manufacture and use to its own distinct tribal conventions.While these masks may at first appear astonishingly individualistic to Western eyes, they do in fact illustrate the conservatism inherent in most African art styles. It would seem that to ignore local conventions of carving was equivalent to heresy in many of these aboriginal societies. Yet, within the limits of an established regional iconography, there is latitude that permits the carver to combine in original ways the elements drawn from the approved vocabulary of forms and symbols understood by his group. For example, a mask whose general structure readily identifies its origin may be unique in details of headdress, painted decoration or, perhaps less apparently, the relationship of sizes and proportions of facial features. Variations may also exist in the wood from which the mask has been carved.The forms of the Congo Baluba masks show a liberal assimilation of stylistic elements from neighboring tribes; in general, masks throughout the Congo are less consistent than the carved ancestor and power figures from the same area. Figures were generally commissioned for use by an individual or a clan and, as indicated, were not often shown publicly. Their style, as a result, tended to be more conservative and less inventive than that of the carved masks. The fact that masks were evolved for use by inter-tribal societies and were exhibited before an often-heterogeneous audience might partially account for this decidedly greater variation.The Institute’s Baluba mask (see cover and figure 1) can be compared in type to an exceptional example of the pure and classic Baluba style, the celebrated horned mask (figure 2) at the Musée Royal du Congo Belge in Tervuren, Belgium.2 Like the Tervuren piece, the Minneapolis mask may have represented an important ancestor whose presence was invoked for sacred initiation rituals. Especially characteristic of Baluba style is the sharp edge, which extends from the base of the nose, terminating in a point at the top of the forehead. The striated, tab-like beard is also common, but the mouth of the mask, roughly squared off at the sides, is a feature more prevalent in masks and carved figures of the more northerly Basonge peoples. The smooth, high-domed forehead, another distinctly Baluba characteristic, is imitative of the shaved hairlines traditional with these peoples, just as the mask’s headdress was inspired by the profusion of wicker crescents over which they worked and fitted their hair, forming it into elaborate, highly personalized arrangements for display on great occasions. The crescents are combined with representations of a complex of animal horns, fitted around the back of the head. Almost no two Baluba sculptures use precisely the same headdress, and in the case of the Institute’s mask, variation in this respect is extreme. The carver has exploited with considerable sensitivity the visual possibilities of contrast between the relatively smooth, untextured face and the luxuriant, textured swirls of stylized hair and supporting crescents.By contrast with the Baluba tribes, the Bobo peoples, who live in the area bordering the French Sudan and the Upper Volta region, have long produced an art of highly rarefied abstraction. That locale, still within the sphere of Arabic culture, is heavily steeped in the ancient Islamic tradition which regarded naturalistic depiction, especially representation of the human figure, as idolatrous. Throughout this vast section a distinctly Arabic-inspired design was used, a vitalized geometry of elegant contours and airy, perforated masses, which was adapted to the native African institution of making masks and ancestor figures. But the Bobo represent a number of groups whose languages are mutually unintelligible and whose various art styles, while within the impressive Sudanese tradition, are extremely varied. In essence, a Bobo mask is as much painting as sculpture. The entire mask (figure 3) is actually a support or background for vivid and restless ornament, and the roughly incised and exuberantly painted surface of the mask is in contrast to its fragile wooden understructure. In profile, the Institute’s Bobo mask (figure 4) resembles the more massive Senufo and Guro horned animal forms, and its symmetry is casual, a loose complex of rough triangles and arcs tightly contained within a tense, serrated contour. The flamboyance and emotionalism of Bobo styles reach the feverish heights of the lavishly polychromed Sepik River masks of New Guinea; in feeling they are closer to Melanesian art than any other African style.The Bobo mask made its spectacular public appearance during elaborate commemorative and “renewal” dances and rites associated throughout the Sudan with the spring planting ceremonies. These were rituals symbolizing the universal African obsession with fertility, increase, and growth. The mask was intended to serve as a protecting ancestor spirit and as a totemic guarantor of continued fertility for the tribe and its crops. The Bobo held these masks to be so sacred that one that was accidentally broken or beyond repair was interred with ceremony and then replaced.Such animals as antelopes, hawks, roosters, and oxen are frequently portrayed in these masks. Sometimes elements of several animals are combined, as in the Institute’s mask, whose bird-beaked faceplate is surmounted by an attenuated palette suggesting at once an antelope horn and a serpent. Such ambiguity of forms is perfectly consistent with African cosmology, which makes easy transition between the real and the spirit worlds. For example, the recognizable animal forms of these masks may represent the actual characteristics of the animal as well as stand for protective spirits, watchful ancestors, and legendary culture heroes. Consequently, in this Bobo mask, many levels of meaning are implicit and exist simultaneously.The exuberant, robust sculpture of the Cameroons savannah descends from a humanistic visual tradition whose earliest recorded appearance is in the elegant and accomplished portraiture of the ancient Nigerian city-states of Ife and Benin. This variety of naturalism, found largely on the West African coast, is also seen in the carved figures and masks of the contemporary Yoruba peoples of Nigeria and is heightened in the stirring, ecstatic facial expressions and postures of the figure sculpture of the Bakongo tribes of the lower Congo Basin.A collection of feudalistic societies whose rituals and art are centralized around local kings or chiefs, the Cameroons peoples of the high plateaus, the savannah area, have a culture which is still among the most vital in Africa. This region includes the grassland tribes, those enormously prolific wood carvers and masters of bronze casting, whose lavish production covers masks, figures, doorposts, ceremonial stools, and other elaborately shaped and embellished objects of daily and ritual use. The various tribes of the region are specialists in manufacturing objects for trade with their neighbors; some stress brass or beaded work, others concentrate on making masks and ancestor figures.The third mask belonging to the Institute (figure 5) appears to have been collected in the Bali region, an area along the west central border of the plateau. Its form is very close to those of the nearby, perhaps better known Bekom and Bamum areas, but these grassland carving styles are so consistent that it is often quite difficult to distinguish exact tribal variations. However, the facial expression of the Institute’s mask is distinguished by a kind of leanness, almost a voracity that the more full-blown, seemingly benign northern and eastern Cameroons styles do not share. Nevertheless, this mask, probably used by a totemic and militaristic secret society, embodies most of the attributes of Cameroons sculpture.From the front (figure 5), the mask exhibits a vital interplay of free-swinging arcs and volumes, which comprise the features and facial planes. Roughly carved, with tool marks clearly evident, its vigorous features are overwhelmingly cartoon-like in the bulbousness of the eyes and cheeks, but refined and elegant in the subtly arched nose. This frontal rotundity is in absolute contrast to the complex of large and small triangular shapes into which the mask resolves when considered from the side. Generally the handling of the features falls well within the Cameroons grassland styles but the elongated jaw of the mask is quite unique.Since the mask was worn on the top of the head as a helmet, there was no need for eyeslits to serve the masked dancer. Worn at such height, and at a sharp angle, the elongated features suddenly foreshorten and the exaggerated length of the face, as well as its unusual depth and swelling volumes, seems less startling. It is an ingenious method of presenting the illusion of a fantastic personage who, in a dance, would tower impressively over the audience.Masks or figures usually remained unconsecrated, unless first anointed in palm oil or some complex mixture of substances intended to activate their supernatural properties. Traditionally, in African sculpture the color white represents death and is painted or rubbed on many memorial carvings of masks and ancestor figures. Red, obviously enough, has been associated with the life force. As with most African masks, the Institute’s Cameroons mask was enhanced, perhaps even brought to the necessary state of efficacy, by being painted in part with kaolin, a local white clay, and then apparently further adorned with t’koola, a red powder made from ground camwood used throughout western Africa.Sometimes the headdresses of Cameroons masks are perforated with intricate foliage-like designs or are composed of an elaborately carved iconography of spirits, serpents, crocodiles, spiders, or even a maze of weapons—all important to the social and religious ethos of the tribe. The turban of this mask, however, is probably its least standardized element, being one of a number of variations on an adapted form of Arabic headdress.Certain generalizations about African art can be made even on the limited basis of the three examples of masks considered above. In this art the human figure is the central subject, regardless of the degree of abstraction achieved by the artist. But the human presence is apparent far beyond the subject matter alone and is implicit in the vital and expressive handling of the sculptural material. Even the most geometric examples, such as the Bobo mask, transcend the merely mechanical; geometry is always subordinated to expressive intent. African sculpture is primarily an art of closely contained volumes, with painting usually a decorative and refining adjunct. The Baluba and Cameroons masks are almost totally sculptural in their impact. However, since its immediate impact comes from its color, the Bobo mask is a salient exception to this generalization.The masks and figures of Africa must be considered within the great corpus of major anonymous sculpture. These works represent the accomplishments not of single artists but of long-established communal traditions. This art expresses an attitude absolutely opposite to the individualistic position of the artist in our society. Yet the impressive formal qualities and emotional force of African sculpture, as so well exemplified in these masks, continue to arrest and influence the most thoughtful and inventive among contemporary artists.Endnotes
  1. Baluba Mask, Acc. No. 53.14, height 19 1/2”; width 16”, Gift of Stephen, Peter, and Michael Pflaum in memory of their grandfather, Arthur B. Cohen. Bobo Mask, height 163 1/2”; width 7 1/2”, Miscellaneous Purchase Fund. Cameroons Mask, height 16”; width 11”, Miscellaneous Purchase Fund.
  2. Musée Royal du Congo Belge, No. 23470, height (with beard) 24 3/4” (63 cm.). The author is indebted to Mr. Albert Maesen, Curator, Department of Ethnography, Musée Royal du Congo Belge, for his kindness in providing this photograph and for granting permission to publish it.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Wooden Helmet Mask
    Baluba, 19 1/2 x 16”, Gift of Stephen, Peter, and Michael Pflaum in memory of their grandfather, Arthur B. Cohen
    (full-face reproduced on cover, side view)
  2. Wooden Mask,
    Baluba, height 24 3/4”,
    Musée Royal du Congo Belge, Tervuren, Belgium
  3. Wooden Dance Mask,
    Bobo Tribe, 163 1/2 x 7 1/2”,
    Miscellaneous Purchase Fund, 1958
  4. Bobo Mask
    (side view detail)
  5. Wooden Dance Mask,
    Cameroons Grasslands
    (Bali Trine), 16 x 11”
    Miscellaneous Purchase Fund, 1958
  6. Cameroons Mask
    (three-quarters view)
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Source: Martin L. Friedman, "Three African Masks," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 48, no. 4 (October-December, 1959): 3-11.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009