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Africa: Traditional Arts of the Sub-Saharan Region - Exhibition text 1990 - African Masks

Masks, music and dance play a very important role in the social life of many African cultures. They are often used in secret societies which are widespread. These societies govern many aspects of religious and social life, and masks may help control the environment or support the chief. They can act as judges, law givers and peace makers. They settle quarrels, regulate fertility and serve a host of other functions. Mask wearers are not simply human beings when they wear their costumes but become the spirit of the mask.

Masks are carved by men, usually in isolation away from the main settlement. The process of carving is part of a complex ritual involving regular sacrifices, fasting, purification and abstinence. With the exception of Mende women in West Africa, masks are worn only by men; appearing during initiation ceremonies and funerals, harvest and fertility rituals, rites of passage celebrations and other significant events. The mask itself covers all or part of the dancer's head, while long fringes of raffia palm, flowing cloth robes or tight woven garments complete the costume.

It is very difficult to understand the complex social and religious aspects of African masks when viewing them as individual objects removed from cultural settings. It is important to realize that these masks can only be fully understood as part of a larger complex of costume, dance, music and ceremony.

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