As populations around the world explode and cultural traditions are lost to the modern world, the beauty and traditions of African masks are still alive and well. African masks play a deep and important role in the history of many African people and their ancestors. Some of the more rare and older masks are highly sought after by museums and private collectors, but even the reproductions of many of these masks are sought after by the average collector. The increasing popularity of African home décor in America and Europe has created a demand that is helping many local artisans and villages to sustain a decent living, or to help supplement their specific occupations such as farming. This article focuses on some of the history behind African masks, as well as some of the modern day trends of African art.
The origins and dates of African masks are highly debated, but some trace African masks back to pre Paleolithic times, while others believe that there is not enough evidence to distinctly determine the exact origins of the African mask. Either way, the importance of the mask in African culture is real and is still used to this day in many different ways. When it comes to the themes and motifs employed in African masks, they range from more or less clearly recognizable human features or busts to the heads of animals. There are also combinations of the two, including horned humans and hybrid creatures with human and animal features or with traits typical of various animal species.
The creators of these masks are expert woodcarvers, and are without exception men. In many cases, the skills that they possess are passed down from generation to generation. On the other hand, there are also many young boys that aspire to be expert woodcarvers and they are taught from a very young age. He might spend several years under a master carver learning the specific craft methods and how to create the products that are most in demand. Once the young man decides that he has learned the skills proficiently, he may go out on his own and open his own store. Many woodcarvers will use this as a form of supplemental income until they are able to make enough commissions to be a full-time traditional carver.
The masks are most typically born of a large single piece of wood. The tools used are very simple and somewhat primitive which is why there is so much skill involved to produce such beautiful pieces of art. For some carvers, the entire process is a spiritual journey and they will even be cleansed before the carving process is initiated. Once the carving process is complete, the carvings are usually given some sort of color or texture. Traditionally, many different types of organic dyes and pigments were used which required a great deal of knowledge with regards to these raw materials (especially plants). Today, many of the masks are typically colored with different types of oil based stains and dyes. The masks can then be adorned with a wide variety of native materials such as cowrie shells, metal, brass, fur, beads, dried grass, feathers and much more.
The great majority of African masks are associated not with certain living persons, but directly or indirectly with supernatural beings or spirits. The performance of masked figures is generally thought to represent the visit of spirits from the beyond among men in the here and now. These supernatural interpretations usually represent spirits of ancestors, spirits from mythical traditions like gods or cultural heroes, spirits of nature, like animals, rain spirits as well as spirits that cause fertility or illness. Finally, some of these supernatural presences represent spirits of possession.
It is important to note that the visual representation of a mask does not always portray its supernatural meaning. For instance, a mask that looks very scary with horns and a red face does not necessarily mean that the mask was created to represent a spirit of possession or something evil. In general, the external form and structure of a mask provides no clear indication of the type of presence it is intended to visualize.
It is very common for some of these older and more rare masks to be sold for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars in America . Most of us are not able to purchase these types of masks, but that does not mean that you cannot enjoy beautiful African art for your own collection. Yes, there are many cheap reproductions coming out of Asia that you can find all over the internet, but there are also some very beautiful, affordable and authentic African pieces that almost anyone can get their hands on. If you are interested, please click on the following link and it will take you to authentic and affordable African home decor.