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Animal masks in african beliefs | africanvariety.com
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Animal Masks

People of tribal Africa are very close to nature and through their myths and beliefs have created a powerful relationship with the animal world. Many animals are associated with spirits. Spirits can hear, see and speak and very often appear in African art disguised as animals. Animals play an important role in the life of African people. Animal masks or masks with human faces but with most of the characteristic attributes of the animals they are suppose to represent, take part in the majority of religious rites and festive ceremonies and are the core of many African tales.

A particularly large number of animal masks can be found amongst the Senufo tribe, Ivory Coast. They are being used there for ritual purposes by the Lo Secret Society and the Korubla Society. Masks in the form of animal heads (realistic or stylized) are believed to have great power and wisdom condensed in the head. Different animals' features symbolize different attributes of human character.

Animal masks which are carved in the form of a pair of heads looking in opposite directions (e.g. by the Senufo people of Ivory Coast), do not represent real animals but some supernatural beings.

The Bwa or Red Bobo people of Burkina Faso make a large variety of stylized animal masks (chameleon, buffalo, crocodile, owl, butterfly). Their zoomorphic masks are usually in the form of a flat disc with a lozenge-shaped or round mouth. The mask has one vertical superstructure or two, spread horizontally like wings. It is multicoloured. The Bwa also have animal helmet masks (buffalo masks) with characteristic circle eyes and triangular mouths.

The Bijogo people off the shore of Guinea Bissau live primarily from rice farming and fishing. The proximity of the ocean influences their life greatly. Masks featuring shark and sword fish are worn during initiation ceremonies by youths whose dances reflect the nature of the animal. The Nalu, Landuman and Baga tribes from the same region also tend to create large animal masks. Very popular are shark and devil-fish masks. The Nalu specialize in stylized masks in the form of birds and the Baga in the images of upright cobras.

Animal headdresses "ula onu" worn on the foreheads of the Ibo people of Nigeria represent different animals, but only those with beaks or horns. Their eyes are very often made of mirrors. The headdresses are used by runners who make announcements in the villages.

Many kings and chiefs in Africa kept a collection of particular objects (statues, masks and skins) that symbolized or were supposed to express their personality. Those objects were made of animal skin or bones or –as in the case of ceremonial masks – in their shape and form symbolized different animals. When a chief of the Songye people had been chosen, he was given by his attendants the following gifts:

  • a lion skin – symbol of strength
  • a fox skin - symbol of agile mind
  • a leopard - symbol of cunning nature

and a numerous masks in the shape of animal heads to enforce his power. All those gifts were put in a chest, which was kept in a special hut and looked after by a young man and woman before their initiation ceremonies.

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