The communal and collective ritual performances known as masquerades celebrate and transmit the myths and themes with which a culture defines itself. They transfer its ancestral wisdom from generation to generation and promote social harmony and cohesion through collaboration of society’s members. African Mask/Masquerade: More Than Meets the Eye, at the High Museum of Art through September 14, showcases 16 objects from western and central Africa that are used in these performances.
Organized by High curator Carol Thompson, this exhibition, mostly of recent acquisitions, opens with three full-body masquerades (the word is also given to the elaborate costumes worn by certain participants of the ritual). The most striking of these comes from a Mossi artist of Burkina-Faso. A white-washed rectangular wooden mask is buried in shaggy layers of grassy fiber that cascade to the floor from its peaked hood. A cloth bag of traditional medicine hangs from the headdress beside vertical eye slits that seem animated and watchful. It is as if something inside is coiled and waiting for release at the beat of a drum. An accompanying 1986 film of a masquerade performance in Burkina-Faso reinforces the idea that the materials of these three were selected for movement.
Brown and ochre chicken feathers or long porcupine quills cover two other raffia tunics from the western grass fields of Cameroon, each paired with a wooden mask.
As the masquerade’s most potent symbol, the mask serves at public functions of funerals, initiations or harvest rites and at private ones known only to members of a secret society. It casts unseen spirit powers into the visible world, making tangible what can only be vaguely understood. Most importantly, by obliterating the individuality of its wearer, it reinforces the communal nature of the event.
The many social functions of the mask are represented here. The kanaga mask of a Dogon artist of Mali was used at funerary rites to honor the dead as they depart for the ancestral realm. A Pende masque de maladie, or sickness mask, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo promoted compassion for suffering members of its society. This one represents a person who was disfigured after falling into a fire.
The Yaka and Lwalwa people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo incorporate white clay — associated with the healing powers of ancestral spirits — into the designs of their masks. Blue tears the color of child’s tempera paint streak down the elongated white face of a Yaka mask.
A horizontally elongated headdress from Nigeria hangs from the ceiling. Six feet long and reminiscent of a shark, it is worn in imitation of water spirits skimming over sparkling water. It incorporates mirrors, white paint and carved wood to honor the beneficent and beautiful spirits of this coastal community.
More warlike masks were designed to threaten and intimidate in service of strengthening respect within the community. One mask completely covered in russet popcorn-hull-shaped seeds resembles a full-face ski mask and is just as intimidating. (A similar one in the British Museum bears poisonous abrus seeds, probably fatal if ingested by mouth or the prick of a finger when sewing.)
A most threatening mask comes from a late-19th- or 20th-century Suku artist of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A huge gorilla-shaped head, with protruding brow and eyes buried in bulbous cheeks, wears a lion’s mane of thick fiber that just begs to be shaken in threat or intimidation. This mask is used in coming-of-age and circumcision ceremonies and is designed to inspire submission to authority among the newly initiated of a society.
The work on display in African Mask/Masquerade gives form to the deeply held beliefs of a culture. It is functional art of the soul. Mounted as they now are on the white walls of a museum, these masks may have lost their purpose, but they have not lost their power.
This exhibition is part of Africa Atlanta.
On home page: a 20th-century Water Spirit Headdress by an Ijo, Abua, or Ekpeye Artist, Nigeria. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from Fred and Rita Richman. Photo by Peter Harholdt.