From the huge Bwa blade masks of the Sahelian savannahs to the small Lega bone masks from the forests of central Africa, this selection bears witness to the extreme diversity of forms seen in the art of mask carving. This visual expression responds to social, religious, and political structures concentrated in the western and central regions of the continent, where equilibrium is negotiated by preserving harmony between conflicting worlds. Masks stand as mediators, intervening to re-establish the shattered link between the untamed world of the forest and the humanized space of the village. They also underscore the passage from non-initiate to initiate. Lastly, they act as a halfway point where the human and the supernatural meet. The African mask is a being from the world beyond, personified in a material that comes from life on earth—a metaphoric bridge between culture and nature.
▪ Ogbodo enyi mask
Igbo / Nigeria / Wood with white, black and orange pigments / Formerly Barbier-Mueller Collection / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 73.1996.1.60
In 1975 in the village of Izzi, however, an oracle is said to have advocated that this heavy helmet-mask, weighing over twenty-five kilos, be worn by a woman several times a year to ward off an epidemic of infant deaths. It is an elephant spirit, but the ntekpe human head sticking out of the back of the mask also designates it as a child of the spirit or the spirit of a noteworthy figure. This mask, which combines human and pachyderm features, is generally brought out during the dry season, when the community is purified and the paths are clean, but it also intervenes in the funeral ceremonies of members of its age group.
▪ Ciwara kun mask
Bamana / Mali / Before 1964 / Wood / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 73.1964.19.3
The fifth society, Ciwara, is similar to a kind of farming brotherhood which taught the principles of farming and aimed to stimulate collective toil. The masks were exhibited in two; a male was always associated with a female, evoking the sun and the land respectively and the analogy between reproduction and sowing the fields. The radically geometric forms and the abstract naturalism of these crests combined to represent a hybrid creature whose feats would be imitated by the farmer: The aardvark, or anteater used as a model due to its power and rapidity; the mythical antelope to which Mousso Koroni—the foster mother who taught men the art of cultivating the land—gave birth; the scaly anteater, which evokes the plant’s underground life.
▪ Nwantantay mask
Bwa / Burkina Faso / Before 1965 / Wood / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 73.1965.1.3
In the south of Burkina Faso, Bwa sculptor-blacksmiths make blade masks materialising the vital force which Do culture sees as breathing life into the supernatural beings that live in the bush. As in the nwantantay mask, these invisible forces, spirits of the air or water are evoked through a rich zoomorphic iconographic repertory in which the geometric ornamentations hide symbolic value. Indeed, these graphic motifs resemble a language of the spirits which acts as a communication system that transmits rules and interdicts, where the triangle represents the antelope and the alternating checkwork symbolises knowledge and ignorance.
▪ Nzop mask
Bangante, Cameroon / Before 1934 / Wood / Henri Labouret Mission / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1934.171.624
The Grasslands region in western Cameroon covers numerous kingdoms where Fo sovereigns use the same social and political structures—those of the Mkem secret societies. Members of the Manjong society wear nzop masks during funerals or to celebrate a victory. This secret society classified by age groups had a military vocation. It used to be organised into warriors’ lodges and aimed to initiate young boys in soldiery; today it concentrates on public interest works. The masks were exhibited during almost playful war simulations and therefore have no religious.
▪ Ko ge mask
Dan / Ivory Coast / Wood / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1938.18.257
The ko ge mask chases sorcerers out of the village or cleans up pathways. This mask harasses its viewers with its terrifying hypertrophied features, yet its behaviour is intended to restore balance in the community, making it a benign spirit.