African Helmet Masks

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Masks are one of the most spiritually important art forms developed in Africa. Among the masks many uses were; communicating with spirits and ancestors, serving as teaching aids in gender specific initiation ceremonies, tools for maintaining order, enhancements for reenacted stories and myths, symbols of rank and power, and a record for past leaders. I will be focussing on masks from the first three categories. The masks, which are all Helmet style masks from West and Central Africa, illustrate how artists from different tribes approached symbolism and visual storytelling. They also show what was considered ideally beautiful for each clan.

The first mask is from the Kuba (Bushongo) tribe in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Katanga, Kasai region. Referred to as “Helmet Mask” (inventory #5-6238) and dated about 1966 this mask is made out of wood with cloth, shell, and bead adornments as well as being painted. Originally part of a set of three royal masks, this is only one of more than twenty forms of Kuba masks. Although they would have been the property of the king he would choose someone to wear them for him. This type is a representation of the sister and wife of Woot (founder of the Kuba king dynasty), Ngady a mwash. Considered the embodiment of womanhood, she was prostituted by Woot to attract followers in the royal drama. The yellow and white painted lines on her cheeks are tears symbolizing the hardships of women while the black and white painted triangles on her for-head, around her mouth, and on her chin refer to the hearth and domesticity.

Another mask dealing with femininity is the “Helmet mask for woman’s secret society” (inventory #5-16500) created sometime before 1948 by the Mende people of Sierra Leone/Liberia. These masks were used in a secret female society on the Guinea coast known as the Bundo/Sande society. It gains its glossy black brown color from the river bottom mud it was crafted from. In order for girls to learn...
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