Black Excellence

28 DOBE- Day 24: African Masks

African masks, black excellence, black history month, black history, masks, tribal masks
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28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

[/vc_column_text][vc_separator color=”green” border_width=”3″][vc_column_text]This shouldn’t be a spoiler warning, because nearly the entire world has seen “Black Panther,” so…in that opening scene, when Killmonger checks out the mask he’s about to take back from the museum that doesn’t deserve it, we see a vibrant display of something that has become nearly synonymous with African culture, particularly with popular conceptions of war and warring tribes. The mask. But what if I told you not all masks are for war, and not all tribes that had such masks were hostile?

African masks appear to be from at least the Paleolithic Period, ranging from the beginning of man, to around 12,000 years ago.

First, there are three forms of these masks:

  • Vertically covering the face
  • As helmets, encasing the entire head
  • As a crest, resting upon the head which is commonly covered by material or fiber to continue the disguise

The general function of masks, not just those in African society, is to take on the form of something else, to take on the physical mechanism of something outside of the wearer. In many African cultures, though, there is no limit to the functions of masks.

According to associate curator Kevin Dumouchelle of the Brooklyn Museum, many artists use, and used, masks and performance to affect change. The larger truths Dumouchelle cites are various. Racism, corruption, and homophobia are addressed by contemporary artists—issues, he suggests that “aren’t always on the surface in public discourse today,” but can be confronted “through the language of art in a way that is perhaps a bit more truthful.”

African masks, black excellence, black history month, black history, masks, tribal masksA rather fascinating aspect of one tribe, the Chewa, in Malawi had me scratching my head: They have tribal masks with Elvis depicted on them. From the outside, it made me, and probably many of you, consider this a form of Africans appropriating American culture. Which, to be honest, it is. But for them, it’s much more than that. These masks, incorporated in dance, are actually used to teach valuable lessons about what is appropriate in society, and how things can be misconstrued. Basically, the lesson that many of us still struggle with today. In another way, these disguises also give the Chewa a sense of control over people they find base their culture on that of others, like in America, by donning these visages of figures like Elvis and Queen Elizabeth II, to illustrate what these nations have taken and to ridicule them while wearing these masks. And from that, we learn that this dance of masked Elvis-impersonators shows how other societies have made an impact on African culture, in the way a man such as Elvis literally tapped into a culture that wasn’t his own, robbed it of its riches, and used it for his own selfish purposes (not unlike colonialism)—and in that way, the Malawi find value in the shared culture, but also shame and embarrassment in a society that would encourage others to steal much and give very little back.

Some specific types of masks have recurring themes of:

  •         Honoring the kings
  •         Preparing for War
  •         Criminal Execution
  •         Rites of Passage
  •         Fertility Rites
  •         Circumcision
  •         Witchcraft
  •         Hunting
  •         Funerals

In Cameroon, many masks are carved from a single piece of wood and which symbolize times of plenty and privilege, depicted with an open mouth and full cheeks. Some of these masks come from sculpted headdresses.

The Mitsogo Mask has a whitened face. The mouth, ears, and nose are reddish-brown. The Mitsogo come from the mountains of Gabon, which could explain the mountain-like appearance on the masks.

African masks, black excellence, black history month, black history, masks, tribal masks

 

Ngil Masks are from the ‘Fang’ tribe. These masks were used to initiate new members into the male secret society. Interestingly enough, the persecution of wrongdoers was carried out by the same such ceremony. These are important historical artifacts of Ghana.

And of course, there were warrior tribes, like the Zulu, who had masks like this.

Just like in the world’s currently greatest-selling blockbuster, African masks taken out of their cultural surroundings doesn’t just rob the tribe…it also weakens the culture. Cultures steeped in black excellence should be admired, but only if willingly shared. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.