Masking is one of the most complex and secretive, yet profoundly important, phenomena in Africa. […] Why, despite the changes that have taken place since the early 20th century, does masking persist in such vibrant form in parts of Africa and its diaspora? What is it that motivates the communities and individuals still so committed to the practice, despite the threats posed by the combined, if antithetical, forces of secularization, fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam? [Chika Okeke-Agulu]
In Maske photo essay (Chris Boot 2010), Phyllis Galembo provides a visual platform to enter everyday African life through the politics behind masquerades. There are many functions of masking nowadays: planting and harvesting (Chi Wara masks, Bamana people); juridical functions (Glewa masks, Dan people); boyhood initiation rites, memorials after their owners’ deaths (Lukwakongo masks, Lega people); fostering gender and social harmony (Yoruba people).
But they also function as a way of protest in contemporary culture. In some cases, masks have been used as a means of complaint against enriched citizens abusing of power, oppressed people sending the most terrifying masks to their homes. As Okeke-Agulu describes it: “masks as agents of law enforcement and coercion”. In patriarchal communities, female masqueraders take the chance to reveal against imposed hierarchies through their costumes.
<Among the Ibibio and Efik people, all-male societies such as Ekpo and Ekpe still preside over social, legal, economic and political disputes, and this practice functions openly alongside the modern legal system.> [P.Galembo]
Built with local materials, performers camouflage with their surrounding constructions and vegetation. Costumes and houses, plants and stones, all mingle with each other: Woven plant fibre materials (sisal, cotton), painted wood, resinous materials (beeswax and tar), twigs, bushes, leaves, lizard excrement (white colour), boiled acacia seed pods (black), iron-rich hematite stone (red), grass, vines, feathers, fur, sugar syrup mixed with coal dust, roots, branches… Materials might be ever lasting or ephemeral. African expats in the US even send actual animal heads preserved by taxidermy back to Sierra Leone, whereas Burkina Faso masks are supposed to fall apart during every ceremony.
Urban space is profoundly altered during masquerades. In Eastern Nigeria Uzo-Iyi, no social event, market or funeral can be held during the festival. In Zambia, there is a spatial dislocation during boyhood initiation rituals; it is by leaving the settlement boundary during some months into the surrounding forest, that a new life calendar is set by the fact of returning to their settlement wearing Makishi masks. Boys leave the city to come back as real men. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, when talking about juridical identity and masks: <Persona originally means mask and it is through the mask that the individual acquires a role and a social identity.>
Masks also serve as a display of current issues. New technologies are applied on the motives of the masks, some including airplanes, helicopters or Hondas. Other masks in Benin, for example, provide moral lessons, ranging from “you can’t buy wisdom at the market” to prevention from AIDS.
African masks are wild and shapeless, and they reveal a whole society behind their powerful aesthetic appeal. In words of Okeke-Agulu, contemporary masking inhabits a space in which faith in new religions combines with residual beliefs in indigenous metaphysics to produce ontological uncertainties; this mixture of foreign and inherited cultural traditions is responsible for the complex, dramatic, rich and extreme social and cultural life in Africa and its diaspora today.
[all images> Maske by Phyllis Galembo, via Stephen Kasher Gallery, Tang Museum, DUST]