a 101 on Traditional African Masks
African Masks have been an important part of traditional African art and culture for literally millions of years, with the first masks thought to date back to BEFORE the Paleolithic era. That’s right, more than 2.6 million years ago. With more than 2.6 million years to hone their craft, it’s no wonder Traditional African Masks have inspired an international audience -and artists- over centuries. Often these traditional masks are created to represent the spirits of animals or ancestors, mythological heroes and also are used to share moral lessons and values of a culture. Abstract in form, masks were used in spiritual and ceremonial rituals. In some cultures, like the Nigerian Yoruba and Edo cultures, masked rituals resemble the western notion of theatre. When wearing the mask, it’s thought the the wearer sheds his or her identity to become the bearer of the spirit within the mask itself. The mask therefore acts as a sort of medium between the dead or nature spirits. The use of masks usually accompanies music, dance and elaborate costumes for ceremonies and celebrations like weddings, funerals and initiation rites. Animals like the crocodile, buffalo, hyena and antelope are represented in masks. The antelope is the most widely referenced animal and symbolizes agriculture. The female face – the beauty ideal – is another theme for traditional African masks as are those that represent the dead. The craft of mask-making was generally passed down from father to son, and mask makers were awarded a special status within the community. Often carved from wood or made from pottery, they also are adorned with metals like copper and bronze, shells, textiles, light stone, hair and bone. Today what you’d call traditional African Masks tend to be created for an international tourist market. Now mass produced, we’re losing the artisanal handiwork passed down through generations. There are also a lot of knock-offs being passed off as genuine artifacts. It can be hard to know the real deal from the fakes, but with experience you learn what to look for. Every now and again we are lucky enough to source some centuries old traditional masks for Snob. But these days, I also love to celebrate the work of contemporary artists who are bringing this art form back to life. Weaving tradition and the pulse of the world today into their exquisite work.