West African Animals and their Symbolism in African Masks
Unlike Eastern Africa, rich with big game and exotic safari tours, the animal landscapes of Western Africa are generally scaled down, at least in size. The quantity of West African animals and their significance, however, play a large role in the Arts and Culture of West Africa. There are several African tribes who believe that animal masks will assist them in communicating with spirits who live in the savannas and forests.
African Bird Masks
Even the smallest country in West Africa, The Gambia, is home to an estimated 500 species of birds. Birds have been an important part in ancient animist cultures, whose tribal people believed that birds had spirits and played special roles in many aspects of life. Several African masks, such as the Sonu Bird Mask, depict a bird on or above a human forehead, signifying a range of themes from courage to intelligence. Sankofa, a common bird symbol of the Akan people, symbolizes wisdom–the bird is often positioned “looking back to the past” for insight.
African Elephant Masks
Trunk-up is the most common position for West African elephant sculptures. Said to be a sign of good luck or fortune, the majority of elephants carved onto wooden furniture, masks or sculptures are carved with part or all of the trunk curled toward the sky. Although many West African countries no longer are home to elephant herds, the historical significance of the elephant and its mighty strength continue to be an inspiration for modern-day African masks and sculptures.
African Crocodile Masks
Throughout the world, many cultures fear the prehistoric crocodile figure, but among West African tribes, the crocodile is considered a sacred animal with many powers. In Gambia, where the crocodile is even stamped on the country’s currency, a sacred crocodile pool called Kachikaly serves as a prayer-ground for visitors from near and afar. Generally regarded as a protector and a spiritual being with the ability to ward off evil, the crocodile has become a commonly revered icon within West African masks, arts, and crafts.
African Monkey Masks
From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Mauritania, primates are one of the most abundant wild mammals still today within West and Central Africa. Though Western influence has led to popularize new depictions of monkeys in particular, ancient tribes often carved the monkey form into masks and crafts to depict the human form in a humorous or satirical way. Some monkey masks in Central African have been used in funeral or death rituals. In Togo, monkey skulls are often traded on the open market and have been associated with witchcraft.
African Antelope Masks
Also called Chiwara, the African antelope’s depiction in mask or sculpture is a sign of good harvests. Some West African tribes, such as the Bamana of Mali, believe that the antelope is responsible for teaching humans the secrets of good farming. Thus, the antelope is a widely respected symbol and often carved elaborately in wood or metal sculptures and masks.
African Masks Based on African Animals: