How African masks are made
African Masks are made of many different types of materials. Wood is not the sole material used in masks, but it is the most common one. Numerous varieties of wood of different hardness and density are employed. Certain types of wood appear to be preferred in some regions or by some carvers' shops, and not only because of their local availability. There are symbolic links between certain masks and certain trees, although little research has been devoted to this topic.
African masks are carved for the most part from a single piece of wood. The exceptions include types of mask fitted with a movable jaw, and the antelope figures in the headpieces of the Bamana in Mali, which are built up from several pieces of wood.
Once a tree has been chosen and felled, the trunk is usually left to dry for some time(except among the Dan, who work mostly with fresh wood). Then the trunk is cut into chucks whose size conforms to that of the mask to be made, which the carver has envisaged from the beginning. The tools used by the traditional woodcarver are quite simple: an adze with a relatively long handle, a knife, and possibly a gouge. Working with these tools requires great skill and much practice. After the basic shape and main features of the mask are established by means of precise blows of the adze, finer shaping of the surface or gouge is used to produce notches such as those seen in the hairdos of many masks. Holes are bored through the edges using a kind of awl, or burned through with a hot iron. Finally the surface is smoothed with the aid of the rough leaves of certain plants, used like sandpaper. The finished carving is then rubbed with the sap of certain plants or with oil, which darken with time; in more recent masks these have been replaced by stains. In many areas there are special houses in which masks, mounted on frameworks, are suspended in the smoke of continually burning fires of green wood, which gives them a blackish-brown surface. Or masks may be colored, polychromy being characteristic of certain types of masks in areas such as southern Nigeria and the southwestern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. For coloring, artists of the past employed organic and mineral pigments exclusively, which required a thorough knowledge of raw materials, especially of plants. However, such pigments began to be replaced decades ago by imported commercial oil-based paints.
Besides wood, other materials are used to fabricate masks as well. Among the Chokwe in Angola there exist, in addition to wooden face masks, others with a substructure of plaitwork over which the face is modeled in a malleable resin mixture. The leopard mask of the Shilluk group on the White Nile consists of a slightly convex calabash disk to which cow dung is applied to produce a design resembling the animal's head. A similar construction is found in the Yoruba masks of Nigeria, although here the substructure is covered with clay. A special form of head masks from the Cameroon Grasslands - actually a hood of cotton and wool fabric - is embroidered with glass beads to give a semblance of eyes, nose, and mouth.
|Several ethnic groups in western Africa, the Tembe (Sierra Lione), Dyula, Dan, and Senufo (Ivory Coast), the Abron (Ghana), and the Bini (Nigeria), are known to have produced masks in cast or hammered brass or bronze. Some of these are face masks; others serve as pendants. A high aesthetic level was achieved in the ivory masks of the ancient Kingdom of Benin. No wider than a human hand, these were designed as breast of belt ornaments. The glass-beaded leather masks of the Iraqw, of Tanzania, are compelling in their simplicity.
Whatever material is used in a mask, it is almost invariably combined with others. The list of materials extends from sheet metal, such as copper or aluminum, to fur, leather, hair, and teeth both human and animal, the horns of wild or domestic animals, feathers , seashells (including cowries), glass beads, porcelain shards, fruit seeds, and many more. The costumes that complete the mask and cover the masker's body can be made of sheaves of palm-leaf strips, woven plant fibers, leaves, local cotton fabrics, pelts or leather, but only seldom of bark cloth or imported European textile remainders.
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