West African masks give form to the Postmodern concept of "ritual performance." These masks and the accompanying masquerades are not suitable for the conventional museum or gallery exhibition space. When on display in a museum, such masks are like an empty shell, out of which the living creature has departed, leaving behind a lifeless husk. Large numbers of African masks are made to be the physical manifestations of ancestral or mythological spirits; they are an important component of vivid masquerade performances and sacred rituals.
Unfortunately, these masks have been perceived as the African equivalent of ancient Greek Kore figures or Renaissance oil paintings, which were specifically made to be motionless and to serve rather different functions. It is interesting to note that even during the Italian renaissance Harlequin and Pantalone masks were worn by actors in the theater-"Commedia dell'Arte." Rather than regarding these masks as traditional sculpture or painting, it would be more appropriate to consider them as a part of "performance art," similar to Western Postmodern happenings and performance. This would help in explaining the spiritual and social functions of African masks and perhaps shed more light on the abstract forms they often have.
In fact, masks are a universal art form that give the wearer a different persona- the Latin word used for carved wooden masks worn by actors in Greco-Roman theater. Various cultures around the world, from the Japanese to the Eskimos, have indigenous masks. Usually, traditional masks and masquerades have spiritual or religious functions. For example, some native American tribes like the Haida, Tlingit and Kwakiutl have masks which "enable dancers and shamans to personify deities, creatures, and forces evoked during the sacred ceremonies and curing rituals." Masks may take on a wide variety of forms, some are used to conceal the wearer's face, while others are headdresses worn on top of the head. Sometimes, elaborate facial make-up or body painting serves as a mask. A general definition of a mask would be anything worn or used to help disguise a person's identity. Even though masks have been known to man since prehistoric times, as shown in some cave paintings, modern society still has a profound use for them. This is particularly evident in Modern and Postmodern art (i.e. performances and happenings by Modern and Postmodern artists)
There is a close relationship between the performances of such Postmodern artists as Joseph Beuys and the African masking tradition. For instance, in Beuys' performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, the artist had his face masked with "honey and gold leaf." This type of painted-on mask is found commonly among numerous ethnic groups in Africa, such as the Karo people of southwest Ethiopia, who make very colorful and elaborate painted masks on their faces and torsos. Furthermore, Beuys' performances were meant to create an art form that was a part of everyday life, in contrast to that which could only be found in museums and galleries. Similarly, masquerades often perform a social function and are an important part of life in several African societies. Egungun masquerades (from a religious cult) found among the Yoruba of southwest Nigeria were responsible for maintaining social order and administering justice. There are several classes of such masquerades, ranging from those for mere entertainment, to the more powerful and sacred ones "which formerly, executed witches and workers of bad magic."
Bearing in mind the social and spiritual functions performed by most masquerades, the associated masks can hardly be defined as "art" in the conventional sense. Perhaps a more appropriate term for "African art" would be "African visual tradition" because the latter is less restrictive and has the flexibility to encompass the wide range of traditional artifacts to be found on the continent. Since one of the objectives of this project is to create better understanding of African masks, by using modern technology, it is important to look into the history of 'African visual traditions' in Europe and the Western world.
Early samples of "African visual tradition" in Europe were displayed in ethnographic museums because they were perceived as strange mysterious objects. The case of the Musée d'Ethnographique du Trocadero in Paris, during the late 1880s and early 1900s, gives a clear picture of the situation. The initial reaction of most Europeans to African artifacts was one of bewilderment and shock. There appeared to be no trace of possible artistic inspiration or influence in these objects. These artifacts were neither properly stored nor well documented; very little information about their origins was available. Remarkably, these artifacts were eventually seen as possessing aesthetic qualities, though the values and style they displayed were contrary to those of Western art. A good example of the influence of "African visual tradition" on Western artists may be found in the English sculptor, Henry Moore. His bronze sculpture Moon Head, (1964) resembles a wooden West African mask from the Mama people in Nigeria (figs. 1-2.). This is largely due to his interest in Non-Western cultures including African, Assyrian, Sumerian, Oceanic, and Inuit.
The French theatrical performance, "The Creation of the World" (1923) written by Blaise Cendars, was based on African myths of creation. The performance included dancing which the choreographer, Jean Borlin adapted from "West African dancing on stilts and on all fours." To complement this, the stage and costume design, by Fernand Léger, was inspired by West African sculpture. This can be seen in his painting "The Creation of the World" (1923), which has figures that resemble Baule helmet masks from the Ivory Coast and the Bambara headdress from Mali.
After a rather slow process of research and increased understanding, several examples of African sculpture can now be found in museums of modern art around the world today. The worldwide acceptance and appreciation of African art can be attributed to the work of several Modernist painters and sculptors. Credit is generally given to Paul Gauguin as being the first Western artist to embrace non-Western art in his work. He paved the way for others who were to follow, such as Picasso (figs. 3-4), and the Fauves, the German Expressionists, and Matisse (figs. 5-6.) Though Gauguin's painting style was strongly influenced by contemporaries like Cézanne, his approach was quite unprecedented. The content and subject matter of his well-known paintings were non-Western. He depicted the local people on the Islands of Tahiti and Marquesas, where he had chosen to exile himself. Non-Western art, often considered "primitive" and labeled as such early in the 20th century, revealed the possibility of a non-realistic, abstract way of representing the real world. It also provided a means of visualizing the spiritual invisible realm.
In fact, the major framework of ideas and concepts within which Modernism was developed, particularly Cubism and Collage, were inspired by African sculpture. This occurred about the time when several Western artists were in search of new, innovative means of expression. Modernists were interested in 'African visual tradition' due to its "irrational" qualities, i.e. the fact that it tapped more directly into the subconscious and spiritual realities, rather than focusing on aesthetics and physical beauty as Western art since the Renaissance. In addition to the groundbreaking work of Gauguin, Europeans in the late nineteenth century were also exposed to African sculpture brought back from several expeditions into the African continent.
The influx of non-Western art could not be totally ignored, especially by artists who were constantly seeking new ways of creating their work. Initially, some artists bought these objects and collected them as souvenirs. Most of these artists were based in Paris, the common final destination of these expeditions. The 20th century French painter Maurice Vlaminck is said to have bought three objects of African art from a bistro in Argenteuil, around 1903. He later sold them to another French artist, Derain, who kept them in his studio. It was there that Matisse and Picasso first paid serious attention to these "exotic" art works. Eventually, both Matisse and Picasso were to own numerous African sculptures in their private collections. The influence of certain African masks can be seen in several of Matisse's paintings, such as the portrait of his wife painted around 1890. Perhaps the most influential painting that is at least partially inspired by African masks is Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). An important aspect of this painting, apart from the obvious formal influences of African masks in the ladies' faces, is the fact that Picasso was aware of the spiritual dimensions of the masks that he was appropriating. The following statement reported in an interview with Andre Malroux attests to this fact:
"The masks, they were not sculptures like the others. Not a bit. They were magical things… the Negroes, they were intercessors… Against all kinds of things: against dangerous spirits… Me too, I am against everything… I understood what the Negroes used these sculptures for… They were weapons. To help people no longer remain at the mercy of spirits, the unconscious (it was not much talked about), it's the same thing. I understood why I was a painter… The demoiselles d'Avignon must have happened on that day, but not at all on the account of forms: because it was my first exorcist picture, yes!"
The sincerity of this claim is debatable, especially since Picasso himself was often quite evasive on this subject. He sometimes even denied the influence of African art on his career. It is important to note the fact that the very mention of spiritual powers in regard to African artifacts was quite unusual at the time. It must have required immense courage for an artist of Picasso's stature and reputation to make such a claim. This statement must have had a profound effect on those who could understand the implications. Unfortunately, Picasso or any other artist in the Western world did not immediately follow up this first step either. Several others, such as Brancusi, mainly appreciated the formal aesthetic qualities of this art form.
Despite this shallow level of acceptance, African art still had a major impact on the development of Modernism. One movement in Modern art that was influenced deeply was the Dada Movement. As evidenced in their happenings at the Cabaret Voltaire, members including Hugo Ball, perceived a deeper meaning in these masks. As Ball observed, "What fascinates us all about masks is not that they represent human characters and passions, but characters and passions that are larger than life." This reference to the supernatural and divine qualities is a step further from Picasso's remarks. Even though these statements are commendable, there still remains much more to be derived from "African visual tradition."
In the contemporary Postmodern art world, with all its characteristic liberality, openness, and international attitudes, it is no longer a surprise to see cross-cultural influences in works of art. What is significant is the attitude of some artists to African art and the effect it has on their work. One such artist, New York based Terry Adkins, declares that, "African art as we encounter in museums, galleries and the like is comatose. Spirit, energy, and power lie dormant in objects that are stripped of their prior function and removed from the metaphysical, synesthetic context in which they were created and intended." An interesting reaction to this issue of exhibition space for masks can be seen in Lorna Simpson's series that directly addresses this issue. She photographed the back view of several masks and placed them alongside the picture of the back view of a female figure. This point of view is often ignored in museums and gallery shows. Another artist and African art collector, Nancy Graves, who is quite aware of the important function of carved masks in African culture, has also been able to learn from some of the sculpture she owns. She gives a brilliant example of what the Yoruba Gelede mask would look like in its original environment:
Significant as a face, my Gelede mask also reads as a silhouette. I imagine it at dusk covered with reflections from a fire and worn as the headdress of a dancing figure, the Nigerian twins' heads becoming the eyes, the vertical pangolin being the nose, and the base of the mask being the mouth. ( fig. 7.)
It is quite clear from these illustrations how much more valuable and meaningful a mask would be when it is seen as part of a masquerade. There are also emotional and psychological benefits derived from masquerade-performing rituals in their original cultural context. My approach is to analyze these rituals and masks in Jungian terms, namely the concepts of the collective unconscious and archetypes. In other words, the masquerade may be considered as a means of providing communal therapy and acknowledging the "shadow" and "child" archetypes, through rituals and rites of passage. Jung expressed this relationship as follows: Religious observances, i.e. the retelling and ritual repetition of the mythical event, consequently serve the purpose of bringing the image of the child, and everything connected with it, again and again before the eyes of the conscious mind so that the link with the original condition may not be broken.
The masquerades and masks serve this same purpose by linking the community with its ancestors and myths related to the creation of mankind. Though there are aspects of Jung's theories that I disagree with, the model is the best for the purpose of my thesis. "Analytical Psychology," the term used by C.G. Jung (1875-1961), for his practice of psychology, is partly derived from Freud's psychoanalysis. This is obviously due to the profound influence the latter had on the former. Though Jung was initially one of Freud's followers, he soon established himself as an independent thinker and modern genius, earning honorary degrees from Harvard (1936) and Oxford (1938). His contributions to modern psychology include concepts like "introvert," "extravert" personality types as well as inferiority and superiority complexes, terms that now are a part of colloquial speech. The main reason for choosing analytical psychology over psychoanalysis is that while the latter tends to lay emphasis on the repressed libido and Oedipal complex, the former has a more universal approach.
When exploring subjective fields such as the human psyche (Greek word for soul), some basic assumptions are inevitable. Any attempt at an empirical proof of the existence of a collective unconscious will be futile, since the results will always be biased with the scientist's weltanschauung. This assumption - "that the unconscious has non-personal, universal content," is not arbitrary, but has been carefully chosen by Jung, after several years of observation and scholarship. Countless Jungian analysts and analysands have also verified it.
The collective unconscious may be described as the psychological equivalent of the human anatomy. Just as human beings have common body parts and organs, the human mind, likewise, has common unconscious features - responsible for things like dreams, instincts, emotions and so forth. It does not mean that all human beings have the same mentality, belief system or level of intelligence. Rather, it implies that as different people have unique fingerprints so do individuals have unique personalities and other derivative attributes, which are not culture or race specific. In other words: collective unconscious = instincts + archetypes. Jung did not actually create the concept of archetypes; it was "borrowed from St. Augustine." What he did was to give more insight and relevance to an old idea.
Archetypes are manifest in the form of images that are found in myths and rituals around the world. There are an infinite number of archetypal images, however some occur with greater frequency than others. For example, the "Great Mother" archetype which "is often associated with things and places standing for fertility and fruitfulness" is acknowledged among the Yoruba with the Gelede masks that honor ancestral mothers. Another common archetype, the shadow, represents the dark side of human nature and is sometimes referred to as an evil or malevolent spirit. Several types of masquerades fall into this category. Jungian psychology can also help in understanding rites of passage that mark different stages of life- birth, puberty, and death.
Jung's critics, mainly those from Freud's school of thought, have often brought up racist and anti-Semitic allegations based mostly on emotion and not fact. Other scholars like Richard Noll (author of Jung Cult and The Aryan Christ) have accused him of starting a new religion and not being a real scientist but a mystic. Admittedly, it's not always clear where to draw the line between science and religion, especially when dealing with the human mind. Noll's criticisms seem to be aimed more at Jung's personal life than his professional life. Others have noted that Jung was not aware of anthropological explanations for cross cultural themes and images in myths. However, Jung himself went on field research in parts of Africa and among Native American tribes to help confirm his theories. The nature of this subject is interdisciplinary and anthropology alone cannot explain dreams nor the dynamics of the human psyche. In fact, some anthropologists admit that science does not always provide sufficient explanations for everything.
Analytical Psychology of Masks
From time immemorial, human beings have been telling stories of their life experiences and dreams. In parts of Africa where oral tradition is key, stories and myths have significant power. One of the most controversial aspects of Jung's work is his analysis of myths in relation to the unconscious. The fact that some archetypal images are common in myths from various cultures is attributed to the collective unconscious manifesting in similar ways but with a "local flavor."
The Gelede masquerade, as mentioned earlier, is in fact a "Great mother" archetypal image. This explains why the masquerade is performed in public where the whole community can enjoy its "maternal solicitude and sympathy," attributes of this archetype. Further evidence of the archetypal nature of the Gelede mask, is the effect of Western lifestyle on this tradition. Modern inventions like motorcycles and aircraft have been carved on top of some masks. Normally these masks feature everyday people and their professions - "the girl with head cloth, the policeman's wife, the bald man" The new masks have Yoruba names - "onimashin (surmounted by a tailor at his sewing machine) and a motorcycle." Another is "aroplen" meaning aeroplane. Among the Baga, of Guinea, the D'mba (fig. 4) "is the universal mother who bore many children…" This mask is designed to emphasize the Baga ideals of female beauty with intricate hairstyle and large breasts. Other archetypal characteristics of this masquerade are the power to bring rain and a good harvest; it also protects the community from harm and danger.
Most fertility rites can be considered as manifestations of the Great Mother archetype. In the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso (former Upper Volta), rituals for the god, Do, using several zoomorphic masks, are believed to bring rainfall. At the start of the rainy season, the Bambara of Mali perform the Tyiwara ritual. It is danced by young men in the village square and is regarded as being responsible for a good harvest. Malevolent or evil spirits are also visualized in some masquerade rituals, as in the Senufo "gbon or korabla helmet." The dark side of human nature is attributed to the shadow archetype, which implies that every ego casts a shadow. Harmful spirits may also be as a result of an angered 'good spirit.' In other words even the Great Mother archetype can cause havoc if proper sacrifices and respect are not given. That is why such rituals and observances are taken seriously and faithfully performed. Jung associates certain negative attributes to the Great Mother - 'anything dark, hidden; the abyss,… anything that devours, seduces, and poisons,…" This is the other side of the coin, so to speak. These 'evil' masquerades also help the community in overcoming its fears. Be it the fear of war, drought, disease or any other misfortune. The result is a sort of 'communal catharsis' or group therapy, which enhances the emotional health, and well being of everyone involved.
Human beings naturally engage in actions to eliminate negativity and wrath. Ritual acts have a sublimating quality, by serving as safety valves that limit or control impulsive biological energy. " It is when the we dialogue with the shadow that we can separate the ego and persona from shadow contamination." This helps in understanding the statement by Picasso on page 7. Therefore, after the collective shadow has been given due attention, the community can then expect peace and prosperity. Inversely, when there is trouble or turmoil, the oracle is consulted to find out the cause so that necessary steps can be taken to restore order and balance. Examples of this type of masquerade include the do masks of the Bobo Fing in Upper Volta (Burkina Faso.) They provide the community with a sense being secure and safe from harm by keeping away 'evil spirits' that may cause a drought, when the rains usually start and farmers sow their crop. Also among the Dogon of Mali, we have certain masks which serve as eternal homes for spirits of the dead therefore stopping them from roaming around and hurting those who are still alive.
Rites of passage and initiation rituals are some of the means employed in marking stages in the life of members of a community. Generally speaking there are three stations - birth, puberty, and death. Marriage sometimes coincides with puberty and even though it is important some people do not get married while others do so more than once. Considering the profound psychological effect each stage has on a person it is important that adequate preparation is made to guide him/her through with minimal risk, pain or loss. (An exception is some circumcision rituals in which young men or boys are expected to endure pain in order to develop self-control and to show signs of manhood.) For instance, among the Chokwe in the Congo "young men enter a bush school (makanda) where the masked spirit Cikunza is one of the important tutelary spirits responsible for the success of this rite of passage." Also during initiation ceremonies into Dan secret societies, miniature masks are put along the road leading to the society's meeting place. Prospective candidates must make payment to have them taken out of the way. Apparently the masks, though harmless, still need to be appeased and acknowledged. In this same ethnic group in the Ivory Coast, young men in their circumcision camps carve small masks; this process sometimes leads to spiritually inspired dreams to become masquerade performers. Here we have a good example of how the unconscious, through dreams, influences the creation of masks and the choice of person performing the masquerade. Another example of dream inspiration can be found in the kpehiyehe mask of the Senufo also in the Ivory Coast where "the crest on top of the mask refers to revelations brought by jungle spirits in dreams."
Considering the profound psychological role of these masquerade rituals, it is important to preserve the tradition and not 'throw away the baby with the bath water.' In some cases, as in some Gelede masks, we have seen how the masquerade has incorporated modern technology and lifestyles. It would be good to see more examples like this rather than turning sacred rituals into tourist attractions. Since the masquerades combine music and dance with the visual component provided by the masks, it would be ideal to present this art form through multimedia. Computer Art, with the ability to combine video, audio, graphics, and text, offers the ideal channel to achieve this. I approach this problem through the use of 3-D modeling and animation software in simulating a masquerade performance. It will explore the possibility of using the computer to recapture the spirit and essence of a masquerade performance.
Since most African masks are geometric and angular, they can be modeled on the computer using primitive shapes like cubes and spheres. Recent software technology also makes it possible to sculpt very organic forms, which some masks incorporate. The mood and atmosphere of a ritual performance or sacred rite of passage is recreated using lighting and sound effects. Using the appropriate texture maps and shaders will simulate the polished, painted wooden surface (patina) of most masks. The main character in the animation, Awa-awa, is derived from a Senufo Diviner's figure (figs. 8 and 9.) Her head is like a composite mask, designed with common features of West African masks, namely: an elongated face, rounded eyes, arched eyebrows, and facial scarification. Her figure has "African proportions" meaning a large head, short legs, a protruding abdomen, and a long, graceful neck. The visual component of my thesis project is intended also to contrast still images of masks with a fully animated masquerade. Since the animation is not meant to simulate a particular masquerade performance, the characters' dances are simply my interpretation of the audio track. In the story, there is tension between the dancing 'Awa' and another mask. After an explosion this tension is relieved and Awa is free to move about. This conflict represents the condition of masks as they hang on the walls in conventional museums. It is a visual statement meant to draw attention to this problem.
The idea of using the computer for exhibiting art work, is already being developed by the Smithsonian Institution on the internet, in a "museum without walls." A similar approach can be used in the case of the masquerade, by combining animation with text and audio, to create a multimedia performance. Thus an old tradition is transformed into a "post-modern" happening. Even though animating a mask on the computer cannot replace a real masquerade performance, it can help foster a better understanding of the significance of masks in motion. This is an aspect of African culture which is seriously endangered, as more villages and rural communities adopt 'modern' and Western lifestyles. Therefore it is necessary to keep the essential aspects of indigenous culture and avoid an identity crisis, through an analysis of the various functions of masks, listed below.
i. Rites of passage - initiations, weddings or funerals
ii. Social control - punishing criminals, evil practices
iii. Sacred rituals - fertility rites, warding off evil spirits
iv. Entertainment - retelling folklore, comedy
Each of these categories will be briefly considered.
Those masks used in initiation rites such as during puberty when young people become accepted as adults, need to be adapted to suit contemporary situations. For instance, in places where most children have acquired Western education in school, those who are involved in their initiation need to have had similar education so as to relate better with the younger generation and bridge the generation gap. Also the initiation process should be planned bearing in mind the academic calendar of the children to avoid a conflict of interest. In other words the initiations would play a role similar to that of Boy and Girl Scouts by turning boys and girls into responsible, cultured adults. A conscious effort is required to design new rites of passage appropriate for modern times, but based on the wisdom of ancient traditions. Taking into account the natural need for certain rituals, abandoning such masquerades will create a void that must be filled with something similar in spirit.
Other law enforcement agents such as the Police have generally replaced the role of providing social control. So masks in this category would probably be less important and may have purely ceremonial functions.
Masks used to ward off evil spirits or in fertility rites exist as a result of the people's beliefs and faith. These would probably remain in places where the traditional religions are being practiced. Since most West Africans do not practice their traditional religions, some of these masks have taken on new roles in national festivals including independence day celebrations and some even perform during religious festivals like Christmas as found in parts of South-western Nigeria. Here the masks have acquired rather ceremonial functions just as most traditional rulers who no longer have any real political power, but have only ceremonial roles. This is similar to the situation of the royal family in the United Kingdom.
In the case of entertainment masquerades, they need to be kept as close to their original forms as possible. So that important parts of the culture like folklore and myths will not fade away. They could also adopt more current themes that people can easily understand, since culture is really dynamic and not static, positive change and improvement are good. Sometimes, these masquerades can be used to address important social issues like drug addiction, abortion and even politics.
Finally, the artistic skills and techniques of carving masks need to be handed down from one generation to the next. Also aspects of the masquerade performance- the songs, music (drums in particular), folklore and dance steps should be kept alive. Other traditional customs and attitudes encouraged by masquerades including respect for the environment (usually permission is required before a tree is cut down to make a mask) and also reverence for elders need to be sustained. The wisdom of ancient traditions should be applied in the modern, industrialized society.
This brings more questions to mind. What role can these masquerades play in the information age? How can they culturally enrich the new 'global village' as it takes shape? Answering these questions requires even more research beyond the scope of this project. However, it is important to find good answers because modern people still have the urge to wear masks. The need to put on a mask seems to be an integral part of the human psyche, and a sign of being a part of humankind.