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Thematic Essay | African Mask

The Spirit that Moved Up from Nowhere

By Audric Beaugard
November 30, 2008
The artisanship of masks requires delicate and precise carvings and fashioning of special materials, the wood from a tribal tree, strand of beads, or fabric, every part is hand made. 
Garuta and Panther
Garuta and Panther -Dana Phayul

The traditional powers of the mask are inaccessible to modern intellect, but the art of mask reflects possibilities of modern philosophy and design.

Pablo Picasso, among others, excited by its haunting depth, was motivated by its character and color. Ancient, historical evidence points to Paleolithic tribal and spiritual origins.

The modern European implication of mask is concealing, the manufacture of a false appearance, but the African mask is characteristically formed out of a longing to reveal. The archetypal liaison of self and nature is demonstrated in festivals of the mask.

In the fertility ritual, the mask spiritualizes the dance, and opens the dancer’s eyes to the ancestral daughters. The mask is not a place to hide, but a way to show something clearly. It is the tribal stage to communicate with nature.

To honor ancestors, the dancer becomes the reincarnation of a great-grandmother or father. The mask is a sacred face of dreams, the language of dance; the ancestors are recreated in the mask.

The dance is an individual ritualizing of tribal history, transforming the dancer into a wise spirit, a force of nature, or sacred animal. The mask is visual interpretation of personal and tribal origins.

The logique de réincarnation is a private resource derived out of a heritage of ancient identities. In the ritual of clouds, the animal-motif mask becomes the shadow of a spirit animal and the dancer is inspired from within, as a cloud is when it strikes lightning.

The dancer receives the power to journey into a spiritual world through the dance. The ritual of clouds is ebullient and the music is complex, vibrant, exhilarating, and moves in sequence to the swirling dancers.

The music, unchanged for centuries, demands technical virtuosity to interpret historic tribal imagery, as formalized in the dream and spiritual lineage of the community.

The artisanship of masks is a natural art that requires delicate and precise carvings and fashioning of special materials, since the structure and mode of the mask object is of fundamental importance.

Each part of the mask whether the wood from a tribal tree, strand of beads, or fabric, every part is hand made under the strict, complicated ritual of craft. The artistic potency of mask art is metaphorically stylized in the task of making the spirits visible.

African masks are exhibited in the finest art galleries and museums and are treated on the same level as fine paintings or sculptures.

The art of mask making reveals a deep emotional connection to nature and its importance to the human family tree. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque are two of the more famous artists among the thousands who have been influenced by the art of mask.

The art movement known as Cubism idealized the face itself as an object of ornamentation. The face separated into its spiritual parts and reassembled, as the essence of the object, was the center of the art.

The ancient art of mask reflects the possibilities of being aware of existence and of existing as a timeless spirit. In its purest form, it is something permanent, the spirit that moved up from nowhere to give us the gift of life.

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