Masquerades are found in virtually all African civilizations, particularly those that are indigenous to this region of the world. Not surprisingly, these masquerades have different forms of significance for different cultures. Nonetheless, there are some basic cultural similarities pertaining to these rituals that transcend individual cultures and pertain to African deployment of this concept as a whole. Firstly, the definition of the very term masquerade can include “a masking performance, a masked performer, or the character embodied by the mask itself” (Uzo, 1997). Moreover, there is an element of spirituality that is strongly associated with this tenet of the masquerade. It is very rare for participants to be unmasked once they have donned a masque and are partaking in a particular ritual or dance. The actual masques themselves are typically emblematic of animals or people, and have a transcendent spirituality. As such, the very participants who don masques and participate in masquerades become associated with that degree of esoteric spiritual energy, and have effectively shed their human form for the time being. The ensuing performance or ritual is similarly spellbinding, and deemed religiously and culturally eminent for all those participating and observing it.
An Overview of African Cultures
The Ikeji are a group of African peoples located in West Africa within the country of Nigeria. Their deployment of the masquerade concept is noteworthy in part because of its representation of gender issues. Specifically, their masquerades are solely attended by men. Although it is possible for women and girls to watch the masquerade, all of the participants are males. As such, their ritualistic dancing is decidedly “a macho thing” (Uzo, 1997). Another extremely important facet of the Ikeji masquerade is the immense variety in purpose which accompanies this ceremony. For these peoples, the masquerade is employed for a bevy of different purposes. Some of them can signify celebrations and entertainment, others might deliver messages about the future or expectations of some of those participating in them. Still others masquerades might take place to “chastise evil-doers” (Uzo, 1997) or for funeral purposes. To this end, masquerades are simply a time-honored if not outright popular way for these people express themselves for a plethora of different reasons.
Some cultures, however, utilizes masquerades for highly specific purposes. A good example of this proclivity is found in the practices of the Batchokwe, a group of indigenous African peoples that are located in Zaire. The main way that this group uses masquerades is as a coming of age ceremony for adolescent boys. Between the ages of 13 and 15, these boys are circumcised. Prior to circumcision, however, these young boys partake in a fairly elaborate ceremony which actually beings with months of training. During their training they are teased and separated from society, since they are unmanly because they are not circumcised. The day of the circumcision they are led through the village by a masked person. After they are circumcised, they each unmask the figure (Cal State, 2013).
Other African tribes, such as the Edo and the Yoruba, utilize masquerades as a means of directly communing with their ancestors. Specifically, these ancestors include the spirits of the deceased and those that have lived well before the participants of the masquerade have. In this respect, “Masquerade is the bridge of the chasm between the living and the living dead” (Ebhomienlen and Idemudia, 2014, p. 64).
Yoruba Masquerade Example
An excellent example of a Yoruba masque is found in the Brooklyn Museum. The title of this work of art is Helmet Mask (Igbudu). Although the artist is unknown, this piece dates from the 19th Century. This particular mask adheres to the deployment of Yoruba masks explicated above. It is a means for the Yoruba people to commune with spirits and forces pertaining to their ancestors. What is perhaps most striking about this mask is its appearance. The mouth is opened, revealing a series of crooked teeth. The effect is not unlike that of a monster that is growling and baring its teeth to frighten others. There are also other facets of this work that appear designed to frighten the beholders. The eyes of the figure are opened extremely wide; when considered in conjunction with the bared teeth, the face appears to invoke trepidation.
The work is constructed of wood and metal, and is extremely dark colored — which partially re-enforces the fact that the mask was used to connote fear and scary forces. These facts are underpinned by the subsequent quotation: “The Igbudu mask represents the evil forces that can threaten a community. One of the only examples of Yoruba sculptural art that is deliberately unattractive, it features a sharp brow, protruding eyes, and wide mouth — all designed to frighten” (Brooklyn Museum, 2016).
This passage is indicative of the fact that Yoruba masks are designed and deployed to commune with unseen forces, such as interactions between ancestors. The mask located in the Brooklyn museum was specifically used to be suggestive of these forces that might have harmed the people who enacted such a masquerade. It was likely used in ceremonies in conjunction with additional masks that represented positive forces to protect those same people.
Batchokwe Masquerade Example
An excellent example of a Batchokwe mask is found in the Owensboro Museum of fine art. The Batchokwe people in Zaire are closely aligned with the Bakubo or Kuba tribe in that same country. The artist of this particular piece is anonymous, although it appears dated from the 19th century. It was acquired by the museum in 1991. The actual piece itself is constructed from wood and cowrie shells. Its design is fairly ornate, as it is impressed with numerous holes and diagonal lines that are perhaps indicative of the hair of a particular character. There is an eye at the base of the head, which may well be suggestive of a horse or some other animal that has significance amongst these people.
The specific type of wood of which it is constructed is known as cam wood, which is pliable when ground up. Masks such as these were utilized by the tribes in Zarie for coming of age rituals involving the circumcision of adolescent boys. These rituals were centered around a masked figure who led the boys through the tribespeople before they were circumcised. In this regard, the masked figure was unequivocally the leader of this ceremony. Moreover, it is noteworthy to mention that each of the circumcised young men were able to individually unmask the leader after circumcision. This part of the ritual was emblematic of the transition to manhood on the part of the boys, who were able to figuratively “see” the truth of their ancestors and spiritual heritage. It is important to realize that the ritual in which this masquerade was a part of was not necessarily focused upon the masked character. Instead, that character’s influence was on the boys and the character’s representation of a way for these adolescents to transition to manhood.
Ikeji Masquerade Example
An excellent example of an Ikeji mask is found in Kentucky at the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art. This work dates from he early part of the 20th century; its author is anonymous. There are several aspects of this mask that render it unmistakably recent, especially in comparison to the other works reviewed in this document. Firstly, it is decorated with a surfeit of colors including, red, yellow, brown, white, and black. Moreover, the main color of the face is white, which accentuates the sanguine lips and the white teeth showing from the slightly open mouth. The figures eyes are decidedly downcast, and fenced in by dark, bushy eyebrows. The design of the mask is also notable for its pyramidal shape which culminates in a triangle at the top. The entire effect is a distinctly masculine, machismo ornamental piece which perfectly reflects the fact that Ikeji masquerades only involve men.
Furthermore, such a mask as this could be deployed in a variation of situations, which is another trait emblematic of Ikeji masquerades. These masquerades are frequently centered around displays of power and assertiveness, which partially explains why only men partake of them in this culture. These overt displays of power are also suggestive of the sort of power that the masquerade invokes, and possibly accesses for the participants. The application of that power transcends purposes, which helps to provide a degree of utility for Ikeji masquerades. That utility spans funeral purposes, as well as those for simply communicating with one’s ancestors. Masquerades can involve displays of power that help to connect the tribespeople to their forebears. These masks are extremely mystic in nature, and are an integral part of the heritage for those that are a part of this tribe and its cultural heritage.
Brooklyn Museum. (2016). Helmet mask (Igbudu). https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/ Retrieved from https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/148307
Cal State University of Dominguez Hills. (2013). Chapter 2 – The Masks of Africa. http://www.csudh.edu/ Retrieved from http://www.csudh.edu/bdeluca/Thepowerofmasks/hum310/2_Africa.html
Ebhomienlen, T.O., Idemudia, M.O. (2014). (Ekpo) masquerade in Edo belief: The socio-economic relevance. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science.
Kleiner, F. S. (2016). Gardner’s art through the ages: Non-western art since 1300; Book F (15th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Kleiner, F. S. (2016). Gardner’s art through the ages: Non-western art to 1300 Book C (15th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Kleiner, F. S., & Mamiya, C. J. (2006). Gardner’s art through the ages: Non-western perspectives (12th ed.). Retrieved from https://learn.ou.edu/d2l/le/content/2249207/Home
Uzo, M.E. (1997). Ikeji masquerade. http://www.folklife.si.edu/ Retrieved from http://www.folklife.si.edu/resources/festival1997/masquera.htm 19(1), 64-68.
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