Since we rearranged the living room, this African mask hangs on the wall in front of Jim's chair and is always in our peripheral vision when we watch TV. It broods. It has a more ominous feel than the rest of our masks. Why exactly is that, we wondered. Maybe because it looks like Darth Vader.
The mask is hand-carved from a single piece of heavy wood. You can see the tool marks and gouges. The front is embellished with upholstery tacks and strips of sheet metal.
This morning I took it downstairs to study it during my meditation time. I held it up to my face, pressed my nose against its back and looked at the world through the eye slits. I sketched a little picture in my notebook to get a feel for its geometry (below). There is a funny little topknot made from cowry shells, attached with raggedy red and brown cloth that falls down the sides.
The Bete are a smallish tribe of farmers and hunters, who live in river country in southwestern Ivory Coast. While the mask might have originated in warfare, now (where the traditions are still honored) it is worn in ceremonies honoring an important person, living or recently deceased. The mask is fierce-looking to subdue the forces of evil and injustice. The masqueraders dance.
A note on their beliefs:
Religion, omnipresent in Bete life, aims to maintain a harmonious relationship between nature and the ancestors who are responsible for the welfare of the tribe. Today the vast majority still follow their traditional African religion, believing in a creator God Lago, but do not pray to or worship him. Instead they seek help from many lesser spirits supposed to have supernatural power to help them, or give protection--spirits of their ancestors, spirits that inhabit trees, rivers, rocks, etc. They observe many customs and taboos and make sacrifices of eggs, chickens, cows, etc. Each ritual focuses on the maintenance and care of good relations with the world of ancestors, so as to assure the protection of the lineages. The religious cults give rise to numerous mask performances, during the course of which the music assumes fundamental importance. The apprenticeship of male youngsters particularly concentrates on the mastery of these arts. In fact, within a village context the men form into veritable dance societies, membership in which is indispensable. [zyama.com]
"The Art of Africa" by Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat, Lucien Stephan. NY: Harry Abrams, 1993.
"African Masks: the Barbier-Mueller Collection" by Iris Hahner, Maria Kecskesi, Laszlo Vajda. NY: Prestel Verlag, 2007.