Tribal Masks With a consideration of Folk Masquerade Original Tribal masks are often seen by unknowing eyes as art objects in themselves. That is not case, unless of course they are modern copies. A tribal mask has embued power and is alive during ceremony for which it is used.
Several years ago I heard this story. An African, from one a well known people, was asked to visit a London museum and give his opinion. He visited a display of masking. "This mask is dead." He stated looking at one familiar to him. He was seeing mask out of context, it had lost its power for people who created it and the magic had died.
To collectors eyes very appearance of mask and story behind it leads to magic. The mysterious art forms drawing on imagination and a need to interpret. As a piece of art it has power to involve observer in fathoming meaning to reach an understanding. This can move viewer into a different frame of reference. Touching a life style that is at once strange and distance, yet it has feel of something closer to home. A paradox that seems to arise in studying older tribal ways. In a collection this is part of magic.
It is also important to appreciate that nearly all masks are part of a full costume. Often costume is made from less durable materials and does not survive. Indeed some masks are also made of less durable materials, such as basketery Yam mask, created by Abelam in Papua New Guinea. And again some masks are destroyed as part of ceremony for which they are made.
The commonality in masking traditions
Delving back into earliest recordings, historically, a visit to caves of Trois Feres in France is enlightening. Picture this painted Paleolithic scene.
A central figure stands wearing head and antlers of a deer. He stands, shaman like, surround by animals. Animals that are important to culture he represents. Some of animals no longer exist in this area. Ibex, reindeer, bison, stag and horses. The shaman, for that is what he seems to be, stands, a human figure amongst potential food. What magic he is creating or ancestors he is communicating with we do not know. Yet from our knowledge of tribal people studied in times closer to ours it is possible to understand links. The need to hunt for food is essential to survival. The gods link all matters, stay in good standing with gods and food will be available. Take only what can be used fairly and do not violate natural laws. Life goes on, following seasons. There is a balance to life and death. The link between them is maintained by magician, shaman, wizard, witch doctor, whatever you wish to call him.
During my studies of masks this relationship between magical and shaman constantly arises. There is a commonality between ancient cultures of Pacific West Coast of North America ( now Canada and Alaska ) and tribal traditions of Africa. Fertility, hunted animal, ancestors, initiation, circumcision, cannibalism real and symbolic, healing and crossing over into spirit world for guidance and healing powers or to appease gods or ancestors. All these occur in different traditions spread around world.
As you allow yourself to delve into traditions surrounding masks in Europe something interesting arises. Here traditions have been sanitised by surrounding culture and church. Yet when you delve back and attempt to understand masking traditions, now displayed as folk lore, ineresting parallels are revealed. Whilst in Belgium I witnessed a processions depicting witches and and modern giants. Other masquerades also have links to witchcraft and by implication to shaman. One powerful link is seasonal nature of many traditions. The Green man and Hobby horse being two examples.