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African Masquerades: the Spirits Behind the Masks

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Masks, along with other African artwork, transcend time while communicating the spiritual legacy of the African people and their culture. African masks are a fundamental part of masquerades and have the ability to allow transition by crossing a liminal space. Henry John Drewal’s article, Gelede Masquerade: Imagery and Motif, reveals the motifs and traditions that embody Yoruba life through masks and other sacred traditions. More specifically, the article goes into detail expressing the importance of “The Great Mother” or “The Mothers” and the tribute that is paid to these women with exceptional powers. These motifs that surround the art medium of masks are both limitless and influential in guiding “The Children” into becoming responsible community members through the wisdom of The Mothers. In this sense, the mask no longer just becomes an incarnation of Orishas, ancestors, or a representation of an exclusive religious or ritualistic affair, but rather utilises the morphology of the masks to better the community. The same can be said for the secret African society known as Sande, a group that aids young girls in their journey into becoming mature and secure women. Ruth B. Phillips explains in her article, Masking in Mende Sande Society Initiation Rituals, that masquerades are strong ‘medicines’ for these groups without compromising their “essential mystery.” Furthermore, masquerades are a means of communication between the general community and the Sande-Mende social life. In addition, masks indicate powerful moments of change and transition which brings about the development of community members and society. The function and aesthetics of African masks are not solely dependent on its religious function, but instead utilizes a mask’s ability to represent a culture’s values in order for children to grow into their future responsibilities, embark on social roles, and give tribute to the deceased.

The mask in African culture plays a central role in performances created to evolve children into adulthood. African masquerades are known to enable a dynamic element in which the person who wears the mask loses themselves in order to become the spirit of that specific mask. By removing the individual’s identity within the conceptual realms of masquerade, a dialogue between the African people and Orishas becomes apparent. Although masks allow the medium to have spiritual connotations, masks can also be seen as essential for a rite of passage into adulthood. Seen as part of an initiation, the Sande secret society of Sierra Leone is entrusted with teaching young girls practical skills for womanhood. Girls partaking in Sande’s initiation undergo three stages of separation from their native communities, transition, and eventually incorporation back into society. Depending on the applicable stage, the ndoli jowei (the sowei who dances) wears the sowei mask which represents the transition into womanhood, sexual maturity and marriageability. As a signifier of female ideals of well-being and beauty, carved masks are worn by the senior members in the Sande Society to mark the maturance of the girls and their initiations. Masks and other traditional attire, become a representation of cultural growth due to their intended meaning of educating future generations of girls into becoming remarkable women in the community. The Sande Society holds sowei masks as a reminder of their timeless value due to the culture’s highest priority to nurturance.

Masks and their accompanying superstructures have the ability to entertain while also to define social roles through symbols and motifs. According to tradition, masquerades in Gelede culture present both males and females as identical pairs. Furthermore, Drewal explains,

Male and female social roles, whether economic, political, or religious, abound in Gelede imagery. Such roles are represented by a figure or figures cited in the superstructure and engaged in a particular activity, or by objects associated with the role.

With that being said, male social roles in Gelede culture include the occupations of priests, warriors, policemen, and civil servants depicted in the superstructure. On the other hand, female Gelede masks depict the only occupation of “marketwomen” perhaps due to the cultural significance of a woman’s primary role as a mother figure. Regardless of the few depictions of other female occupational roles, all masks and their accompanying superstructures, often project an idealised image targeted towards one’s role in society. For instance, depictions of men working in a certain field may allude to a man’s social role as a provider or spiritual leader therefore reinforcing the value of working hard in the community. African women may not be necessarily represented in occupational social roles in order to indicate that they are idealized since they are honoured for their beauty which is indicated by intricately braided hairstyles and narrow eyes. Understandably, masks, costumes, and music incorporated in African masquerades are not purely religious in focus but rather paramount to defining one’s role in the community. The masks depicting roles suggest stability for the economy, as well as, ensuring that certain actions and attitudes will not “endanger traditional life.”

In Gelede culture and other African cultural groups, masks become imperative when commemorating the past and fellow ancestors known “as sacred religious funeral rites.” Although Gelede masks memorialize ancestors under a funeral context, they also immortalize and persevere stories, myths, and history. According to Drewal, “The imagery in a mask can be clarified by oral testimony concerning the history.” With that being said, this means that Gelede ceremonial performances “recapitulate the entire history of the… community.” Masks and other funeral attire allow for the preservation of history and results in a positive influence amongst community members to continue to innovate Yoruba life. Furthermore, Drewal states, Having properly performed the necessary rites, the living can dwell secure in the belief that as long as they continue to act according to accepted norms, they will receive the benefits of the mothers’ power channeled to positive ends.

These funeral rites allow for masks to be held as a reminder of Gelede history and for order to continue even after the passing of important community members.

Undoubtedly, masks within the conceptual realms of masquerade have become a part of African cultures across the continent allowing for educational and social growth. Furthermore, African masks have transcended time thereby encouraging future generations to build prosperous communities. Observing Sande girls’ transitions into adulthood, masks signify a spiritual rebirth to better Mede society through education. Also, masks have depicted idealised behaviors, actions, and roles for each sex to letgitmise in order for a stable society. Funeral rites not only commemorate, but the masks show younger generations the culture and people before them making the medium rich in nature. Every mask has a spiritual meaning and orisha attached to itself, however, masks also have cultural context and represent the intentions or values of a ritual that allows the community to broaden its horizons and cultivate for the future.

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