African masks are arguably the best known and most popular form of African art. Tourists and art enthusiasts from all over the world collect these pieces with great enthusiasm, and they certainly prove to make impressive displays.
The tribal artist has an important job. He is trained by a master carver or his father to carve significant pieces, each bearing their own important message and role in the artist’s village or culture. The masks this artist creates are used in certain rituals and religious festivals, giving him a position of respect amongst his villagers.
Masks are usually designed to evoke a sense of shock in the viewer. As such, they often depict a face with a grotesque, threatening, sad or suspicious expression. They are usually made of a good quality wood and are sometimes decorated using paint and beadwork. Alternative materials for the creation of an African mask include textiles, leaves, wire, metal or paper. Because of the quality and, sometimes, the intricacy of the mask, it can take weeks to complete one piece.
Masks are held in high esteem in many cultures. Usually, only men wear the masks during special events, ceremonies or celebrations. When they are not in use, they are often kept in a safe place, protected from wear and tear and weather damage. Masks are also assigned spiritistic powers; the ability to effect, affect or influence events. Some masks are considered to be so powerful that villagers are not even permitted to look directly at them. During ceremonies or celebrations, villagers wear the masks on their faces, on top of the heads as a helmet or perched on top of their heads like a crest.
Today, with the development and modernisation of African culture, societies are making less use of the mask for traditional purposes. As such, these pieces are being designed and manufactured mainly for decorative purposes, sold to art investors around the world. These remnants of a time past bear testament to the importance placed upon the art of Africa in a world of religious and cultural rituals.
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