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The art of mask

SHARE   |   Wednesday, 10 July 2019   |   By Reginald Bakwena
An Art piece An Art piece

It should be acknowledged that the art of mask have an aesthetic quality that glorifies the ugliness. History records that though the mask was associated with prestige that served as an entertainment tool. Others associated it with the personification of a spirit or supernatural creatures. Historically, masks portray that existence of certain group of people. For example some people relate mask with witchcraft which has played a significance role in the development of African Art after the colonial era. The mask provides a wide range of thematic issues such as political, religious and economic specialization amongst the tribes. This was more evident especially in Central and North Africa. 

The mask provides an audience with an interesting perspective on the complementary nature of African art as well as its social and cultural identity. Art in African context has been part of people’s life as manifested in every aspect of such as working, playing and believing which are displayed in the form of masks. It is important to acknowledge that, the art displayed by African masks even if not formally expressed, it plays a vital role in art work. To appreciate the art of masks will enable the viewer to appreciate the social background of and the certain ideas of that ethnic group. Emotions, impressions and thoughts were expressed by African when making a mask. It is also known that the art of masks have an immediate impact. It conveys to the mind of an audience the greatest number of ideas which will build up the audience’s own interpretation.


Some argue that the style of African masks, often seen without instruction is difficult to understand, unless one is related to the tribe.  But the viewer has to understand that masks may perform multiple functions that change the meaning according to the situation: it may entertain, frighten or promote fertility. It may also symbolize power, especially that of royalty such as chiefs. For others, masks could also be made for other purpose such as to please or to teach.

The making of masks that depict the bare teeth, blown- out cheeks, overhanging brows all transform the human being into a supernatural one, in its distorted features. The mask are said to represent humans because of its association with beliefs. Masks can combine both features of human and animal. There is one example of mask which was made by Morris Foit (Kenyan artist) who was on residency in 2004 at Thapong Visual Arts Centre in Gaborone Botswana. It combined both animal and human features. It depicts a human face surmounted by goat’s head. Similar type of the mask made by Foit is found in Central Africa. Examining the mask sometimes is difficult to distinguish between male and female by looking at the features. However one could witness and feel some sense of belonging from Foit’s work which depicts his religion but, an ignorant person may interpret it depicting his identity.


The difference in styles, functions and the origins of the mask depend on the location. Most of the masks were made to be used in special ceremonies such initiation, praying for rain and witchcraft. Some of the masks were used to enforce law and order. It was also used to intimidate women and children. However, there are some artists whose work could be dedicated to entertainment and open for interpretation, For example, work done by local artist name Joseph Piet. His work is also different because he uses found metal objects. Piet’s mask is full of expression with a long face that is made to attract an audience. According to him, masks entertain. To him it does not have anything to do with the belief whatsoever but it is open for interpretation.

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