A dark, male Makonde (Mozambique) mask

Masks of Africa

Ceremonial masks continue to play an important role in the lives of many Sub-Saharan Africans. Masks are often used to celebrate rites of passage like birthdays, puberty and death. Most celebrations are as somber as they are festive. Many invoke ancestral powers, altruistic ghosts, or avenging spirits. Masks and attached costumes often become parts of the ritual activities and reinforce those society’s unique cultural traits.  

The exploration of Africa by Europeans in the 15th century grew to encompass the best and worst of colonialism. The transfer of cultural objects to royal courts, public museums, and individual collectors continued for centuries. While many objects have been lost to their original culture, succeeding generations of skilled craftsmen and artists have continued to create the necessary ceremonial garb for important occasions among their people.

Since the early 20th century, masks carvers have been prolific in creating contemporary versions of traditional craft. While some are still made for actual local use, many more are made for the tourist and commercial markets. Questions of “authenticity” often arise among collectors. However, for the purposes of education and cultural continuity, many contemporary works are of equal importance for today’s audience.

Masks of Africa closes January 28. It will be replaced with Small Worlds: Miniature Masterworks. [Pictured: Mask, 20th century, Makonde (West Africa). Gift of Dr and Mrs. David C. Rilling. 9″ H x 7.25″ W.]