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MASK Mythology

Symbols, especially African symbols, are very difficult to interpret. Western meanings and interpretations have no bearing on how one should analyse African and tribal mythology. As an art form, western critics have no idea about the reasons masks are made - or indeed the originality of such art. African masks are copied from generation to generation. African Artists, when carving tribal masks with meaning, have to stay with certain protocol, design and tradition. This takes away any originality from such art forms.

 

African Mask jewelry is highly sought after. Original african mask jewelry is very difficult to find - most of it is in museums and private collections.

MASK Mythology

Masks are used for traditional dances, to appease the gods and spirits and as good luck charms.

Often used as symbols of hope and to ensure good fortune. They were used, and are used, in many cultural traditions.

Have a look through the meanings and symbols below. Most popular is our Nyami Nyami from Zimbabwe. You can see more mask jewellery and meanings with pictures at African Mask Jewelry

Nyami Nyami Pendant Large 3d

Nyami Nyami Pendant Large 3d NYAMINYAMI is the WATER GOD - river snake - of the ZAMBEZI RIVER. The TONGA people of the ZAMBEZI VALLEY pledged their allegiance to this spirit by performing ceremonial dances. NYAMINYAMI (literal meaning: meat meat) showed himself often - especially in the dry season and allowed the people to cut meat from his body in their times of need. NYAMINYAMI, the great RIVER GOD with the body of a snake and a fish-like head, protected and brought good fortune to those who believed in him. One year, however, when NYAMINYAMI had gone up-river and his wife had gone down-river, each to help the people, the white man came to build THE WALL in mighty KARIBA GORGE

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AFRICA 5 MASKS:

AKUA'BA - AKUA'S CHILD

Asante (Ashanti) Ghana

Originally these statues are said to have represented the Moon Goddess - NYAME. According to legend a woman named AKUA became pregnant and had a beautiful daughter by carrying this figure. Until recently many AKAN women carried the figure to induce fertility - it was carried like a child on the woman's back. In the past 50 years the figures have been naturalized, earlier examples had rudimentary arms, a stylised neck and conical torso (3). The disc shaped head is characteristic. It is our experience is that this figure is internationally appreciated for its striking design and is instantly identified with Africa.

NYAMINYAMI

The Protector

NYAMINYAMI is the WATER GOD - river snake - of the ZAMBEZI RIVER. The TONGA people of the ZAMBEZI VALLEY pledged their allegiance to this spirit by performing ceremonial dances. NYAMINYAMI (literal meaning: meat meat) showed himself often - especially in the dry season and allowed the people to cut meat from his body in their times of need. NYAMINYAMI, the great RIVER GOD with the body of a snake and a fish-like head, protected and brought good fortune to those who believed in him. One year, however, when NYAMINYAMI had gone up-river and his wife had gone down-river, each to help the people, the white man came to build THE WALL in mighty KARIBA GORGE.

NYAMINYAMI did not want his movements along the many magnificent miles of the ZAMBEZI to be impeded. HE WAS UNHAPPY. KARIBA DAM took five years to complete. Unexpected heavy floods, broken bridges and collapsed walls caused time delays and many lost their lives. The following is taken from information provided by the OMAY CRAFT CENTRE, in the NYAMINYAMI DISTRICT in ZIMBABWE. TONGA ELDERS AND THEIR SPIRIT MEDIUMS MANAGED TO PERSUADE NYAMINYAMI TO CALM DOWN. THE DAM WAS COMPLETED AND KARIBA LAKE CAME INTO BEING. HOWEVER, NYAMINYAMI WAS SEPARATED FROM HIS WIFE AND NEVER AGAIN SHOWED HIMSELF TO ANY HUMAN BEING.

MASK OF THE GREAT PROTECTOR OF WILD LIFE

Based on an illustration from INDABA MY CHILDREN African tribal history, legends, customs and religious beliefs by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa. (4). Of note in this mask is the direct identification of style to purpose by way of the dominant horned head dress. The head band has a bold geometric ethnic pattern common to much African design. Some open mouth masks denote aggression (2) so may it be supposed that this Being is demanding to be heard?

ZIMBABWE BIRD

Zimbabwe

The Zimbabwe Bird is a little over 30cms high. It is sculpted in stone. A number of these elegant pieces are in the possession of the Zimbabwe National Museum. They are thought to have stood on the walls and possibly on pillars in the GREAT RUIN - the origins of which are linked with legendary names like King Solomon and Monomatapa. That this sculpture was of significance to the inhabitants of that ancient city is shown by the number of birds found. Their purpose, however, remains shrouded in mystery.

MBULU NGULU

Ancestral Guardian

BAKOTA - GABON (About 27 inches high) (KOTA STYLE)

These figures were used to guard religious baskets (MBUMBA) of tribes in Gabon (2). The baskets contained some skull remains and other objects of specifically magical value. In this category of masks, large figure

ORIGINAL AFRICAN MASKS:

BUSH SPIRIT

A MASK FOR WILD LIFE

(MOYA WAKO SEKWENG is a Tswana phrase for the Spirit of the Bush).

This mask has three features of interest. An open mouth often represents aggression - this addresses the untamed, sometimes violent ways of the Wild. The treatment of the eyes closely resembles the work on a Bush Spirit mask from Loma (Liberia). One of the few fairly common devices on masks in Africa is the incorporation of small carved antelope horns to hold magic or medicines. They also represent spiritual power Baule (Côte d' Ivoire). Hence the small horns on our mask.

STORM CATCHER

MOTSWARA MOYA

(MOTSWARA MOYA is a Tswana phrase for The 'Amulet' that catches The Storm).

This mask was made with a degree of design freedom tending to abstract. Like all our other masks, however, it relates strongly to its African roots. The shape is based on a Bedu mask. Hwelu (Côte d' Ivoire), the engraved hair representation reflects Dan (Liberia) work and geometric design can be seen in Mossi (Volta) pieces. On a simple level STORM CATCHER'S function is to attract the good aspects of a storm - rain, which is synonymous with prosperity. On a deeper metaphysical level its purpose is to catch, control and render harmless the storms of life.

POWER MASK

AMANDLA

(AMANDLA is a Zulu word for Power).

Power Masks are found, amongst other places, in Zaire. The elongated nose and small mouth are found in Fang (Gabon) sculpture and the ladder scarifications are from Mossi (Volta). This mask reminds the wearer of personal power and potential and calls up the energy, focus and determination of achievement.

A MASK FOR GOOD

MADALA

(MADALA is a Shona word, almost always respectful, for an old man).

The mask is reminiscent, in its compact intensity and pent-up power of the Mabila

(Cameroon) that links with the ancestors who are instrumental in the welfare of the living. A mask for maintaining social stability and the order of good.

SUCCESS MASK

ULUKILE

(ULUKILE is a Sotho word describing one for whom things go right).

In African mask conventions an ornate headdress such as this often refers to success or status Guro (Côte d' Ivoire) in that one is no longer lowly with the need to carry burdens on the head. The Zulu (South Africa) traditionally pierced their ears and gradually expanded the hole until the distended lobe could accommodate a very large decorative disc (± 6cm). The heaviness of this mask and solidity of design evoke substance, status and success. The piece focuses strength, purpose and perseverance for the wearer.

SERENITY MASK

OTHOTSE

(OTHOTSE is a Sotho word for a person who is quiet inside).

The beautiful smooth planes and clean outline of this mask typify many Baule (Côte d' Ivoire) carvings. The downcast eyes imply composure - an essential adjunct to peace and serenity. The total of seven horizontal lines on the face is an allusion to sexual completeness. Gu (Côte d' Ivoire).

WISDOM MASK

OTHALEFILE

(OTHLAFILE is the Sotho word for wisdom beyond book learning).

The geometric design on the mask recalls Mossi (Volta) design. A training college for adult education in Southern Matabeleland (Zimbabwe) has an owl as its crest. This is one of the rare occasions where and Afro/Euro symbol is shared. Owl Eyes, then, is a mask for Wisdom.

PERCEPTION MASK

WASHE BISISA

(WASHE BISISA is a Sotho phrase meaning to look at a thing or event in many different ways).

The oval shape of this mask is taken from the Makonde (Angola) and the vertical ladder idea is Mossi (Volta). The mask has eye spaces, their specific purpose is a reminder that we can look at events and life itself in whatever way we wish - positive or negative. One needs often to see through different eyes. Perception can govern happiness.

TOKOLOSHE EXORCIST

TOKOLOSHE SANGOMA

(SANGOMA is a Zulu word for a person who, amongst other things, is a spiritual healer).

The TOKOLOSHE is a manifestation of mischievousness and evil. The power of this spirit is great. At least harmful it is used to frighten children - at the other end of the scale it is summoned by a person of spirit power to cause the illness or death of a nominated victim. The Tokoloshe Exorcist is created to combat the power of such evil everywhere. It protects the wearer who believes. The totem has large all - seeing eyes like the Nagaap (Night ape) and the Owl, who both see in the dark. It takes wisdom from the Owl and survival cunning from the tiny monkey. The Exorcist has great ears to hear all important matters concerning the Tokoloshe. Even the secret stealth of the Evil One is heard. The totem has the mane of the Great Lion that empowers him with strength and courage. Most important of all, the totem's own tail is seen to be a serpent. The Exorcist holds this firmly to signify that he can control evil - even that which is in himself.

THE MASK OF SEVEN

SUPA

(SUPA is a Tswana for Seven)

In Western mythology seven is widely regarded as a mystical number. In certain parts of Africa seven is also a significant number. A mask of the Guru (Côte d' Ivoire) has numerous scarifications (small flesh cuts that leave raised scars). There are sets of three scars and sets of four - being respectively male and female numbers. These sets of scarifications each, as a group, total seven. This is clearly deliberate, for in the description of the mask it is stated that seven is the number that represents sexual completeness. Similarly our mask has elements of seven. The total eye, mouth and nose part is seven. There are seven vertical bars within the headdress. The major design planes of two eyes, two cheek curves, mouth, nose and the triangular forehead also total seven.

The focus on the Euro/African mythology of SEVEN and its intricate pierced design make this an unusual and significant mask.

MEDITATION MASK

MANAGANO

(MANAGANO is a Tswana word for thinking deeply).

The mask uses the concave form of the classic Mahongwe Mask (People's Republic of the Congo). The oval shape also relates to carvings of the Makonde (Angola). The mask suggests introspection and meditation.

SPIRIT GUARDIAN

BADIMO

(BADIMO is a Tswana word for the God Spirit that is here now).

This mask draws heavily from Kota (Gabon) designs. A large variety of such Guardian masks are in existence. Their purpose was to guard relics that played a major role in the welfare of groups and Individuals with reference to their spirituality.

 

THE STREGNTH MASK

MATLA

(MATLA is a Tswana word for strength including strength of character).

The length, overall shape and especially the curved hat are reminders of the Plank masks, Bwa (Birkino Faso). This mask with its lean, Composed features and stylised wrinkles suggest strength and resilience, evoking forces of composure and personal balance.

PERSONAL PROTECTOR MASK

MOROWI

(MOROWI is a Tswana word which describes great contentment because all in life is good)

The basic shape of the mask, headband and conical head are reflections of a spirit figure (Anjenu) Idoma (Nigeria). The Spirit Figure and this mask are concerned with personal well being especially Health, Family, (Fertility) and wealth.

LEGACY MASKS

AKUA’BA

ASHANTI

GHANA

Originally these statues are said to have represented the Moon Goddess, Nyame. According to legend, a woman named Akua became pregnant and had a beautiful daughter by carrying this figure. Until recently, many Akan women carried the figure to induce fertility - it was placed like a child on the woman’s back. In the past 50 years the figures have been naturalized. The early examples, of which this is one, have no legs, a conical torso and rudimentary arms. There is a female form of Akua’Ba (disc-shaped head) and a male form (rectangular head), but both have the same generalized function of promoting the birth of a perfect child - regardless of sex.

NWANTANTAY

BWA

BURKINO FASO

These great plank masks (1-2 m in height) represent super-natural flying spirits from the Bush. These spirits provide their blessings and protection to the families that own them. Such forces were called Dyo. The masks were used as an aid to creating a stable co-existence with them. The masks were necessary at all important functions. At funerals, for example, they were required to ensure safe passage between this realm and the next. This mask gains an added dimension in these times of increased awareness of Nature and sustainable living.

FANG

PANGWE

GABON

This Pangwe piece fits into the group known as Fang masks. Large, often frightening facemasks are common to this group from Southern Pangwe. These are masks that dispel evil spirits. In secret societies, those who wore them became judges, policemen and Bush Spirits and when they appeared, they scattered all evil. Throughout Africa, white on masks is the colour of death - many Fang mask are so painted. The wearer of the mask was draped from top to toe in fibre, so that the whitened mask, seemingly detached from human form, must have been truly terrifying as it emerged, by firelight, from the gloom of the forest.

GIRL’S FACE

GURO

COTE D’IVOIRE

Much traditional Art in Africa has a social or religious function. Some of the output of the Guro people, however, amongst others, serves a purely aesthetic function. Numerous everyday utensils were decorated for the pure joy of beauty. Amongst these are embellished pulley holders used on weaving looms. The Guro were famous for their fine workmanship on such pulley holders. Their work is often best viewed in profile as witnessed by the exquisitely coiffured girl’s head. It is also suggested that such pieces evoked the presence of friends to keep the weaver company whilst working.

MBULU NGULU

BAKOTA

GABON

These figures (up to 60 cams high) were used to guard requilary baskets (Mbumba) of the Bakota people. The baskets contained some skull remains and other objects of specifically magical value. In this category of masks are large figures representing founding fathers, with the smaller ones commemorating less important individuals. Each sculpture had an individual name know to all the villagers. These pieces were the representatives of the ancestors and received propitiatory offerings. They formed an essential link between these ancestors and the living.

WAITING MAN

SENUFO

COTE D’IVOIRE

For lack of any other, we have named the little male figure (10 cms high) ‘Waiting Man". Small figures like this were not uncommon from the Senufo. The work of their carvers had a figurative quality hardly known in any other African traditional sculptural art. Figures of various sizes were produced for Poro ceremonies (the dominating cultural influence), fertility festivals and ancestor worship. This is probably such a piece. Despite its small size, ‘Waiting Man’ has a wonderful stylistic purity.

HERITAGE MASKS:

AKUA’BA

ASHANTI

GHANA

Originally these statues are said to have represented the Moon Goddess, Nyame. According to legend, a woman named Akua became pregnant and had a beautiful daughter by carrying this figure. Until recently, many Akan women carried the figure to induce fertility - it was placed like a child on the woman’s back. In the past 50 years the figures have been naturalized. The early examples, of which this is one, have no legs, a conical torso and rudimentary arms. There is a female form of Akua’Ba (disc-shaped head) and a male form (rectangular head), but both have the same generalised function of promoting the birth of a perfect child - regardless of sex.

BEDU

(DANCE MOON)HWELA

COTE D’IVOIRE

The Bedu mask is also known as the Dance Moon mask. These masks are amongst the largest in Africa but they are also a relatively young group, deriving from Nafana sculptors in the 1930’s. They emerged from an older, rather sinister cult. The Bedu, however, were free of such references. They were intended to celebrate village and family values and to remedy wrongs and imbalances, both large and small. They also helped communities allay anxieties resulting from colonial rule.

DJE

YAURE

COTE D’IVOIRE

These masks often belonged to the ‘Keeper of the Cult.’ They enshrined the power of the Bush Spirit (Dje) and never left the sacred wood or forest where they were kept. It is also here that they appeared during important ceremonies. During such celebrations, the mask would be worn by the best young dancer whose job was to urge the others on - often in competition with other groups. This mask seems to have been associated with joyful occasions.

KULEBELE

SENUFO

COTE D’IVOIRE

These masks are named after the carvers who made them - the Kule caste. This facemask was created for members of the weaving caste. Other castes within the Senufo social structure were the smiths and the farmers. The type of mask shown here is one of the most widely known in African Sculpture. At one time Senufo art was seriously endangered by the arrival of the Massa cult from the Niger Bend. The cult required the destruction of all ancient figures before newly erected shrines. Thus many pieces that would not normally have been allowed to outsiders, found their way to Europe. 

WATCHER

PANGWE

GABON

This Pangwe piece fits into the group known as Fang masks. Large, often frightening facemasks are common to this group from Southern Pangwe. These are masks that dispel evil spirits. In secret societies, those who wore them became judges, policemen and Bush Spirits and when they appeared, they scattered all evil. Throughout Africa, white on masks is the colour of death - many Fang mask are so painted. The wearer of the mask was draped from top to toe in fibre, so that the whitened mask, seemingly detached from human form, must have been truly terrifying as it emerged, by firelight, from the gloom of the forest.

YANDE

ZANDE

NORTHE – EASTERN ZAIRE

Yanda comes from the Zande area of Zaire. The word Yanda is used for this little figure and also for the Protecting Spirit of the sect that venerates it. The sect was opposed by the Zande princes and by the early twentieth century colonial powers. The ideals of this sect were both remarkable and commendable in that "...it was sympathetic to social change and fired feelings of revolt among those sectors of the population that had always been excluded from the exercise of power, for example, women, who were allowed to participate in meetings of the sect."