Monday, July 20, 2009

Our African Masks

Ibrahim, the seller of African masks at the art fair, gave us some information about our masks, which I have tried to supplement with research in books, looking at the museum, and on the web. We bought the mask on the left from him last year. The two masks to the right came from an African art store in Washington, D.C. some years ago, and we received no information at the time we obtained them. He was able to identify them.

The leftmost mask is from the Kwele tribe of northern Gabon. The rightmost mask is from the Fang tribe, also in Gabon. The mask on the left, Ibrahim explained when we bought it last year, is called a Justice Mask. A person wears it when being sworn in at court, the way a westerner swears on a Bible. The spirit of the mask enforces the oath. I have not found any information about Justice Masks. However, the Kwele tribe and especially the nearby Fang tribe (their enemy) produced many of the popular masks that have appeared in shops and art museums.

I learned that the Kwele people occupy a huge area of forested land in Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo, though their numbers are small: around 15,000 people. The masks represent forest spirits, and frequently have the horned motif, as ours does, representing an antelope. The white paint on the masks represents the peacefulness of a spirit world. I found a very long article on the Kwele by Louis Perrois, which describes their villages and their various types of masks. Our mask is not a perfect match, but it has a similar spirit to the ones described and to various ones depicted for sale on eBay and other sales websites.

Our third mask, in the middle, is from the Baule people of the Ivory Coast. A Baule mask appeared in an exhibition at Galerie Levesque, in Paris in 1913 (image to the right, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art p. 152). Many masks from the Dan people of the Ivory Coast share the characteristics that make the Baule masks so appealing to me. They also have a smooth, black surface and simplified features. I believe these were influential on early modern artists.

The Baule, I learned, belong to the Akan peoples who inhabit Ghana and the eastern region of the Ivory Coast. Their carvings are influenced by their neighbors, the Senufo and Guro people. "Three hundred years ago the Baule people migrated westward from Ghana when the Asante rose to power. The tale of how they broke away from the Asante has been preserved in their oral traditions. During the Asante rise to power the Baule queen, Aura Poku, was in direct competition with the current Asante king. When the Asante prevailed, the queen led her people away to the land they now occupy. The male descendant of Aura Poku still lives in the palace she established and is honored by the Baule as their nominal king."

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