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African Masks and Masquerades



A transformation takes place when a mask is worn.
This mask represents kpele kpele, a character from a popular masquerade among the Baule people of Ivory Coast.
zoom This mask represents kpele kpele, a character from a popular masquerade among the Baule people of Ivory Coast.

 

In traditional Africa, a spirit inhabits a mask upon its creation. When a man puts on a mask and costume he gives up his own being. The identity of the spirit takes over. Sometimes this spirit can be of another person, such as an ancestor. Other times the spirit is an animal or natural force.

The person who performs with a mask, called a masker, will undergo a physical change. The costume worn with a mask is just as important as the mask itself. A masker dresses in private and covers every inch of his body to conceal his identity. Costumes can be quite complex, made with hoops, padding, poles, and layers of fabric and raffia. Unfortunately, while many museums collect masks, very few costumes survive.

The masked spirit appears to the community in a music and dance performance known as a masquerade. Sometimes the spirit's movements are unpredictable. Although audience members know that a human being is behind the mask, they accept that the spirit of the mask is present. They may respond to the spirit with fear or joy, depending on the purpose of the spirit's visit.


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1. This mask represents a Chokwe ancestor.
2. This Sande Society mask represents a water spirit, sowei.
3. This Kuba mask from the Democratic Republic of Congo represents a horned forest spirit.

 

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April 2004