Sunday, December 16, 2012

Decoding Cultural Masks . . .

While in Arusha, Tanzania, we visited the Cultural Heritage Centre, a compound of shops and a large gallery of African art. Our driver said only an hour; we squeezed in another 45 minutes. I could have stayed the rest of the afternoon.

African Female Portrait Mask, Provenance unknown
The architecture of the gallery was circular, open, with excellent light.We saw literally hundreds of traditional African art objects -- sculptures, textiles, carvings, masks, chief's chairs, and modern paintings. I was reminded how Picasso's art changed irrevocably after he saw African art for the first time at a friend's house in Paris, about 1907. The result? Cubism and the beginning of abstract art.

But now that I'm home, reviewing my pictures, I realize layers of controversy and a lack of real information hinder my understanding of these works. As this was a gallery, not every work identified the maker, the tribe, or when or where the work was made. Are the art works authentic or manufactured for the tourist trade? Were they imported from India or other countries and made to specification? The desire to preserve traditional beliefs is juxtaposed against the commercial appeal of these works. Traditionally, fathers taught sons how to make the masks, passing along sacred and secret information. Once the masks are taken outside of their tribal context, how do we understand what these masks mean?

Beaded Mask, Provenance unknown
We admire a beautiful African mask. But to someone within the tribal culture, this mask is more important for what it symbolizes -- the mask can represent nature spirits, be a change agent, a bridge to the spirit world, or worn for a ritual, itself a rite of passage. Once the person puts on the mask, he (for typically men wear these masks) is transformed.

In the mask of the woman above, the high forehead may stand for intelligence, the closed eyes for patience and humility (desired traits in females), the beading and scarification could emphasized culturally defined beauty, and the cowry shells, royalty.

I'm guessing the beaded mask may be some kind of nature god for sea creatures swim around the green face heavily decorated with cowry shells. But I don't trust my interpretations for I was never the young child standing in the marketplace (as shown in the video below), watching an ancestral hyena come to life and dance.

In this 15-minute video on YouTube, Christopher Roy discusses some of the contexts of the mask in "African Art: The Masks of the Gnoumou Family in Boni Perform, 2007." His video is set in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

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