The Function of an African Mask
In the early 20th Century, artists like PABLO PICASSO and ANDRE DERAIN were inspired by the bold abstract designs that they discovered in African tribal masks. They collected and used these works of art to influence their own style. In effect, they used African culture to refresh the tired tradition of figure painting in Western Art. As a result, we now tend to admire the bold design and abstract patterns of African masks through European eyes. We appreciate them as exhibits on museum walls, cut off from their original meaning and magical power. However, this is not how they were designed to be viewed. African masks should be seen as part of a ceremonial costume. They are used in religious and social events to represent the spirits of ancestors or to control the good and evil forces in the community. They come to life, possessed by their spirit in the performance of the dance, and are enhanced by both the music and atmosphere of the occasion. Some combine human and animal features to unite man with his natural environment. This bond with nature is of great importance to the African and through the ages masks have always been used to express this relationship. The Materials of an African Mask
African masks are made from different materials: wood, bronze, brass, copper, ivory, terra cotta and glazed pottery, raffia and textiles. They are often decorated with cowrie shells, colored beads, bone, animal skins and vegetable fibre. The majority of masks and sculptures, however, are made of wood for two reasons: 1. Trees are in plentiful supply in the forest.
2. The carver believes that the tree has a spiritual soul and its wood is the most natural home for the spirit in the mask. Before any tree is cut down, a sacrifice may be offered as a mark of respect to the spirit of the tree requesting its permission for the carving. Its life is governed by the same natural and supernatural forces that inspire the artist and his community. This type of ritual is common to many cultures that have a close spiritual bond with nature. Wooden masks are often colored with natural dyes and pigments created from vegetables, plants, seeds, tree bark, soil and insects. Occasionally they are splashed with sacrificial blood to increase their spiritual power. The tools used to make a carving - traditionally the Adze - are also endowed with their own particular spirits. When tools are passed down through different generations, they sometimes inherit the spirit and skills of their previous owners. They, like the artist, his carving, and the tree from which it came, are all part of that 'oneness' of nature - the ecological vision that informs all African tribal culture. The Use of Pattern in African Masks
Bold pattern, either painted or carved, is a powerful and expressive element in African mask design. Most patterns tend to be geometrical and symmetrical and are used in a variety of ways. Different geometric patterns are sometimes used to distinguish between male and female masks. Square and triangular checkerboard grids are often carved to decorate sections of a design. A variety of complex braided hairstyles adorn the top of the head. Some patterns are often used as a form of coded information. Parallel, zigzag, cruciform, curved and spiral lines, representing scarification marks or tattoos, are frequently used to adorn the planes of the mask face. These can denote social status or have magical or religious powers. Interlacing crosses and geometric forms are often seen as details on African masks. With the spread of the Moslem faith in Africa, some of these designs show an influence of the decorative ideals of Islamic Art. The Elements of Style in an African Mask
There are two main forces that influence the style of an African tribal mask: 1. The traditional style that is dictated by the social and religious beliefs of the community. 2. The individual vision of the carver.
African tribal artists do not try to create...
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