This week the main topics we focused on were the masks of different cultures, especially the Baule, Bamana, and Bwa. The majority of what we covered, such as what certain masks represented and their purposes, was reiterated in Introduction: The Mask, Masking, and Masquerade Arts in Africa by Herbert M. Cole. Many aspects of this section relate back to previous weeks, such as how Cole explains how masks are interpreted when they are taken out of their original context and how most African languages don’t have translation for the word “mask”.
Masquerades closely relate to other aspects of African art we have been studying. The masks, much like I pointed out in my first blog post and like Herbert Cole touched on, only mean so much when separated from the rest of the costume. They are displayed solely as masks, while still showing off their beauty and visual power, the viewer cannot take in the artworks purpose and meaning. In some cultures the mask never would have made it to a museum setting because if it had a functional use it would’ve been burned. Western cultures rarely understand that it’s more than a mask; to the African peoples it’s about the whole costume, the dances, and the atmosphere. Another connection between my first blog and what we learned about this first couple of weeks of class and the rituals we are looking at now is the words we associate with African art. Not only is the word “art” not necessarily a concept, but they also don’t have a word associated with “mask”. We think of masks as a disguise or something being represented, while Africans rely on the concept of embodiment where the spirit is being created. They are more than just masks or power objects.
Masks play a huge role in African arts and have many different purposes and meanings. A video we watched in class, titled African Art as Theater, pointed out that the masquerade is used as a way to attract people to the market. Masks can also be used in harvest celebrations and as funerary shrines for elders who have passed away. However, a big part of why masks are so deeply integrated in the African cultures is because of the spiritual meaning. While masks are being danced, the performers believe that they aren’t simply representing a greater spiritual power; they believe that spirit embodies them and they are no longer their own self. Masks effect change in the sense that they evoke a transition of knowledge, in this case being a spiritual interaction between this world and another. An example of this is the chameleon mask, which symbolizes transformation like the changing of the chameleon’s skin. The spirit of it is embodied in the dancer, rather than the mask and dance being symbolic of the chameleon.
The Bwa masks also represent animals such as the butterfly, serpent, and hawk, all of which have meaning embedded in the colors and geometric patterns used. Even though the use of color in masks is generally limited, the use of black, white, and red are relevant and each pattern has its own symbolic meaning. An example of this is seen in the black and white checkered superstructure of the Bwa masks. The squares represent the hides the viewers sit on to watch the performance; the black is for the knowledgeable elders and the white is for the less wise. Zig zags are also seen on masks, which refers to the course of life. Some of the marks seem to resemble the scarification on the Bwa people.
Masquerades incorporate not only the visual aspects of African cultures, but the dance and music as well. However, the presentation isn’t only about the dancer. He interacts with both the drummer and the audience. In the video it seemed as if some of the performers interacted with the audience in the same way Nani Agbeli did when he incorporated different people into his performance a couple weeks ago, especially the way they both get in peoples faces and intimidate the audience. The audience also gets involved when the elders join in to teach the masker. The dancer relies on the role the drummer plays in telling them when it’s their turn to perform and warning them of obstacles. All of these interactions contribute to the masks and their meaning to the people.