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The Function of an African Mask

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In the early 20th Century, artists like PABLO PICASSO and ANDRE DERAIN were inspired by the bold abstract designs that they discovered in African tribal masks. They collected and used these works of art to influence their own style. In effect, they used African culture to refresh the tired tradition of figure painting in Western Art. As a result, we now tend to admire the bold design and abstract patterns of African masks through European eyes. We appreciate them as exhibits on museum walls, cut off from their original meaning and magical power. However, this is not how they were designed to be viewed. African masks should be seen as part of a ceremonial costume. They are used in religious and social events to represent the spirits of ancestors or to control the good and evil forces in the community. They come to life, possessed by their spirit in the performance of the dance, and are enhanced by both the music and atmosphere of the occasion. Some combine human and animal features to unite man with his natural environment. This bond with nature is of great importance to the African and through the ages masks have always been used to express this relationship. The Materials of an African Mask

African masks are made from different materials: wood, bronze, brass, copper, ivory, terra cotta and glazed pottery, raffia and textiles. They are often decorated with cowrie shells, colored beads, bone, animal skins and vegetable fibre. The majority of masks and sculptures, however, are made of wood for two reasons: 1. Trees are in plentiful supply in the forest.

2. The carver believes that the tree has a spiritual soul and its wood is the most natural home for the spirit in the mask. Before any tree is cut down, a sacrifice may be offered as a mark of respect to the spirit of the tree requesting its permission for the carving. Its life is governed by the same natural and supernatural forces that inspire the artist and his community. This type of ritual is common to many cultures that have a close spiritual bond with nature. Wooden masks are often colored with natural dyes and pigments created from vegetables, plants, seeds, tree bark, soil and insects. Occasionally they are splashed with sacrificial blood to increase their spiritual power. The tools used to make a carving – traditionally the Adze – are also endowed with their own particular spirits. When tools are passed down through different generations, they sometimes inherit the spirit and skills of their previous owners. They, like the artist, his carving, and the tree from which it came, are all part of that ‘oneness’ of nature – the ecological vision that informs all African tribal culture. The Use of Pattern in African Masks

Bold pattern, either painted or carved, is a powerful and expressive element in African mask design. Most patterns tend to be geometrical and symmetrical and are used in a variety of ways. Different geometric patterns are sometimes used to distinguish between male and female masks. Square and triangular checkerboard grids are often carved to decorate sections of a design. A variety of complex braided hairstyles adorn the top of the head. Some patterns are often used as a form of coded information. Parallel, zigzag, cruciform, curved and spiral lines, representing scarification marks or tattoos, are frequently used to adorn the planes of the mask face. These can denote social status or have magical or religious powers. Interlacing crosses and geometric forms are often seen as details on African masks. With the spread of the Moslem faith in Africa, some of these designs show an influence of the decorative ideals of Islamic Art. The Elements of Style in an African Mask

There are two main forces that influence the style of an African tribal mask: 1. The traditional style that is dictated by the social and religious beliefs of the community. 2. The individual vision of the carver.

African tribal artists do not try to create a perfect representation of their subject. Although some realistic portraits are made, others celebrate more abstract qualities like nobility, beauty, courage, mischief and humour. They create an idealized version, emphasizing those elements that they consider most important: COMPOSITION – Formal symmetrical arrangements of line, shape and form in figures and masks evoke integrity and dignity. TEXTURE – Skilled craftsmanship, fine detail and quality of finish are of great importance to the African tribal artist. Highly polished surfaces which represent a youthful healthy skin reflect the idea of beauty and virtue, while rough dirty surfaces suggest fear and evil. Many African carvings portray the idealized human figure in its prime, brimming with health, strength, and celebrating fertility or virility. SHAPE – African masks take on many forms. They can be oval, circular, rectangular, elongated, heart-shaped, animal or human, or any combination of these. The simplification and abstraction of visual elements in the art of the African Mask emphasize its expressive power. When we look at EXPRESSIONIST ART of the 20th century, we tend to think of it as a European style. One look at elements of African art shows you where this visual vocabulary was born. Designing an African Mask – Step 1

Preparing your materials
* To begin with you need two similar sized sheets of thick paper or card, one light in tone, the other dark. * The contrasting tones will be used to create a balance of positive and negative features in the design. * You will also need a pencil, scissors or craft knife, and some glue.

Arranging your paper
* Fold the light sheet in half down its vertical length and cut along the crease. * This should give you two equal halves.
* Take one of the light halves and place it over the dark sheet as in our example above, creating one half dark and one half light. * Arrange these sheets in portrait format.

* Next: Designing the eyes…..
Designing an African Mask – Step 2

Designing the eyes – 1
* Draw a stylized eye about halfway down the light sheet of paper. Simplify this drawing into basic shapes that contain little detail. * Stylized and simplified features are used to help express abstract qualities like nobility, integrity, courage, fear and humour. * The shape that you choose for your eye and the angle at which you set it will affect the expressive qualities of the design.

Designing the Eyes – 2
* Cut out the eye shape, flip it over and place it on the dark sheet to
form a symmetrical arrangement. * You will now begin to see the counterchange of pattern which will be used throughout this mask design. * The aim is to create a perfect balance between dark and light, and positive and negative.

Designing the Eyes – 3
* The illustration above depicts some alternative designs for stylized eyes. * Note how each pair of eyes has been simplified into basic shapes without much detail. * Simplified features on a mask communicate quicker and are more visible from a distance. They also have a greater expressive impact than more detailed images. * Next: Designing the nose…..

Designing an African Mask – Step 3

Designing the nose – 1
* Draw one half of a stylized nose on the light colored paper. * The nose should stretch from just above the eyes to roughly halfway between the eyes and the bottom of the sheet. * Stylized and simplified features are used to help express abstract qualities like nobility, integrity, courage, fear and humour.

Designing the nose – 2
* Cut out the nose shape and flip it over.
* Place it on the dark sheet and align it with the vertical edge of the light paper. * This will complete its symmetrical shape and maintain the tonal counterchange of the mask design.

Designing the nose – 3
* This illustration depicts some alternative designs for stylized noses. * Note how each nose has been stylized and simplified into a basic shape without much detail. * Simplified features on a mask communicate quicker and are more visible from a distance. They also have a greater expressive impact than more detailed images. * Next: Designing the mouth…..

Designing an African Mask – Step 4

Designing the mouth – 1
* Draw one half of a stylized mouth on the light colored paper. * Although the position of the features in this mask is conventional, you do not have to follow normal facial proportions in mask design. * Variations in the positioning of the eyes, nose and mouth will create different expressive effects in your design.

Designing the mouth – 2
* Cut out the mouth shape and flip it over.
* Place it on the dark sheet and align it with the vertical edge of the light paper to complete its shape. * Note that the inside of the mouth has also been cut out and flipped onto the light side of the design to create the illusion of an opening.

Designing the mouth – 3
* This illustration depicts some alternative designs for stylized mouths. * Note how each mouth has been simplified into a basic shape with stylized details. * Note again how simplified features on a mask communicate quicker and are more visible from a distance. They also have a greater expressive impact than more realistic images. * Next: Designing the shape of the face…..

Designing an African Mask – Step 5

Designing the shape of the face – 1
* Draw a simple shape for the outline of the face on the light paper. * This shape could be oval, circular, rectangular, elongated, heart-shaped, animal-shaped or human, or any combination of these. * Different outline shapes will give you different expressive effects.

Designing the shape of the face – 2
* Cut around the outline of the face but leave the face shape in place.
* Now take the leftover background shape, flip it over to the other side and align it with the vertical centre line. * This will create the background for the negative side of the face. The remaining space will become the background for the positive side of the face. * This example is designed to form the shape of a heart – a symbol often used in mask design. * Next: Decorating the face…..

Designing an African Mask – Step 6

Decorating the face – 1
* You can decorate the face of your mask by drawing some tattoo designs or scarification marks on the light side of the face. * These decorative markings are often used on masks to communicate coded information or social status. * They can also represent magical or religious power.

Decorating the face – 2
* Cut out the tattoo or scarification marks, flip them over and place them on the opposite side of the design to create a decorative symmetrical arrangement. * Symmetrical arrangements of line, shape and form in masks evoke a sense of integrity and dignity. * Next: Styling the hair…..

Designing an African Mask – Step 7

Styling the hair – 1
* On the light background draw a stylized design to represent hair or braids. * A straight, simplified, linear design is used here to contrast with the curves on the rest of the mask.

Styling the hair – 2
* Cut out the stylized hair braid, flip it over and place it onto the dark side of the design. * This completes the symmetry and is the final counterchange of the arrangement. * The layout of the mask is now complete.

The Finished African Mask Design
* Once you have completed the arrangement of your design, glue the light shapes down onto the dark background. * Take care to ensure that a neat line is formed down the middle of the mask where the two halves of the design meet. * An accurate symmetry across this line is essential to the success of your image. * Next: Adapting the design……

Designing an African Mask – Step 8

Adapting your mask design – 1
* Using different combinations of colored cards will affect the mood of the mask. * Color has a strong effect on our emotional response and it may also be used symbolically. * Two tones of green have been used on this mask to suggest the color of the forest.

Adapting your mask design – 2
* Contrasts of pattern and color can be used to increase the expressive power of your mask. * Experiment with different combinations to see if you can improve the impact of your mask design. * Next: more adaptations……

Designing an African Mask – Step 9

Adapting your mask design – 3
* You can texture the card for your mask design with various materials such as paint, acrylic gesso, glue, sand, coloured tissue etc. * Rough, worn and weathered effects give the mask design an authentic antique look.

Adapting your mask design – 4
* Whatever materials you use, you must keep a strong tonal contrast between the opposite halves of the mask. * You want your mask design to be bold and simple so that it may seen clearly from a distance. * Subtlety is not a quality you look for in tribal masks. * Next: even more adaptations……

Designing an African Mask – Step 10

Adapting your mask design – 5
* Using card with a metallic or reflective surface can produce interesting effects in the way it scatters and changes the light and tone of the mask design. * It also modernises the style of these images which start to take on a sci-fi quality. * Sci-fi imagery is often based on the iconography of ethic or ancient cultures.

Adapting your mask design – 6
* Essentially you can use any materials that are capable of being cut and pasted to make our mask design. So try to experiment with any suitable media or techniques that comes to hand. For example, the image opposite illustrates how our mask lesson has been adapted for the technique of marquetry – the cutting and gluing of thin veneers of dark and light woods to create aAfrican Masks – Woyo

Woyo masks are usually painted with contrasting colors against a white background and are often worn with a full length costume made from banana leaves. The colors used in a Woyo mask have symbolic meaning and are sometimes repainted to renew its power. Woyo masks are carved for the ritual dances of the ‘ndunga’, a male society responsible for maintaining social order. The Woyo believe in witchcraft. Ordeals by fire and poison are used to determine the guilt of those who haveAfrican Masks – Bwa

Bwa masks are believed to possess special powers which are controlled by those who wear them. These masks are plank shaped with a circular face at one end and a crescent moon at the other. Their wearer looks through a hole in the mouth. The eyes are based on an owl and the hooked nose comes from the hornbill. Both these birds are thought to possess magical powers. The plank section is decorated with geometric patterns which are an essential design element in many African masks and carvings. Geometric pattern creates an external rhythm which echoes the internal spiritual energy of the artwork. It can also be used as a coded language where the design communicates secret knowledge to those in the know. The designs on this Bwa Mask, which is used to celebrate boys’ initiation into adulthood, represent information about the myths and morality that the boys must learn before they can be accepted into adult society. been practicing sorcery.

African Masks – Lulua

The Lulua were famous for decorating their bodies with intricate scarification marks and tattoos. They also applied these designs to their sculptures and masks. The masks, which are rare, are usually incised with geometric pattern and colored with a reddish pigment. The pointed forms on the top of the head represent the Lulua hairstyle. The Lulua, previously called the Bena Lulua, are related to the Lwalwa and like them, the men hunt and the women farm. * striking design.

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