Masks are among the most archaic and universal forms of sculpture. Found across a vast number of cultures and eras, they disguised the wearers and allowed them to embody a different entity. Masks were often linked to the supernatural realm and served to temporarily personify a spirit being, social concept, or idea. The rock paintings of Tassili-n’Ajjer in southern Algeria, 4,000 – 700 BCE, attest to the shamanistic use of masks in Africa already thousands of years ago: the images show how masks were used in rituals related to hunting, presumably to appease the spirits of nature following the killing of an animal.
The roles and functions masks assumed in the different African religions and societies are complex. Masks were almost always performed by men. The use of masks was often linked to closed or secret male societies (lots 330, 334, 349 & 350). Exceptions from this rule, however, are the masks of the sande women’s society of the Mende, Gola and Bassa of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Mediating between the community’s men and women and the spirit world, this society served as a unifying social and political vehicle for women (lots 340 & 341). According to Herreman (2002: 15), in “many cases, law, inherited from the ancestors, [was] transmitted through these closed societies. Rules [were] enforced by the tangible presence of the supernatural world, incarnated in the masks. Masks, however, also [entertained] and [brought] joy and excitement to the community (lots 331, 332, 333, 335, 336, 337, 338 & 344).” Some masks, such as the famous D’mba masks of the Baga people of Guinea (lot 339), represented an ideal such as the abstract role of mothers in society and by extension fertility, prosperity and well-being.
The term “mask” does not only refer to the piece of wood covering the face and the full costume but to the entire character which is represented. Herreman (loc. cit.) notes: “Most masks act dynamically when they appear. They may walk solemnly, run or dance, or perform acrobatic feats. […] Masks speak and sing, they often express themselves in a secret language or make strange unearthly sounds that can only be understood by the initiated. Often, musical instruments accompany them. Instruments such as trumpets and flutes produce sounds that may serve as the voice of the mask. […] Costumes usually completely cover the body of the masker. Their shape and the materials from which they are made comply with the character the mask incarnates. Bush spirits [see lots 329 & 347] may be dressed in a costume made of natural fibers, while ancestor masks are usually worn with a fabric costume [see lot 343]. Amulets with medicines and other protective devices such as feathers from specific birds, and teeth and fur from leopards or other animals [see lots 333, 333A, 334, 341 & 344] heighten the power of the mask. […] Since masks are above the law of common men, they often carry signs of power that are reserved for chiefs, kings or warriors [see lot 345]. The headpiece that conceals the face or head of the masker is most frequently made of wood. Other materials from which masks are made may be fabrics or fibers. Wooden headpieces are categorized by the way they are worn: crest masks [see lots 333A, 337, 338, 345 & 346] rest on top of the head, helmet masks (lots 340 & 341) cover the entire head, some masks slant across the forehead, face masks [see lots 329, 331, 332, 333, 334, 335, 336, 342, 343, 344, 347 & 348] cover the face of the masker, and large shoulder masks [see lot 339] rest on the dancer’s shoulders. In many cases cloth or raffia fibers are attached to the mask’s rim, which often has drilled holes made for that purpose. It is rare to find complete masquerade ensembles in art collections [… as] they are often made of organic materials which easily disintegrate [see lot 341]. Sometimes the costume is purposely destroyed at the close of the festival. ”