Taking on the Spirit

African masks inspired the Cubist and abstract art movements

The history of masks in Africa has been traced back to the Paleolithic period more than 10,000 years ago. The masks are typically made of wood, but some are created of leather and fabric. Often painted and decorated with stones, shells and metal, masks represented spirits both of animals, ancestors and mythological gods and heroes. They were used in ceremonies and celebrations and were worn by initiated dancers. During a dance and mask ceremony, the mask wearer would take on the spirit of the mask and may go into a trance, communicating messages and wisdom from the spirits to their tribe.

Different regions and tribes had different styles of masks. Yours is from the Baule people, a farming community from the Ivory Coast in Africa, and is carved from wood with some applied paint decoration. Baule masks and sculptures are all unique but share similar properties: a smooth, even patina, balanced proportion and clearly defined features. The masks often have arched eyebrows and eyes that are nearly closed.

Your mask is known as a figural heddle pulley, and was an aesthetic and functional part of a weaving loom. The heddle pulley in a loom works in tandem with shuttle to weave the warp and weft threads. Masked heddle pulleys were used by the Baule people to protect the weaver and bless them for creating cloth. The mask would have been attached to a pulley in a loom used in strip-weaving to create strips of cloth that would be sewn together to create a larger textile. Yours is called a Bo Nun Amuin mask or “god of the bush.” It combines elements from different animals and was considered to be a formidable and fearsome protective spirit.

Because of the effects of colonization and tribal displacement in Africa, mask ceremonies are not as widespread as they once were. Before the 20th century, African artists who created masks, as well as their initiated dancers, had special notoriety and status. The commercialism of the 20th century made African masks popular to tourists as souvenirs because of their ethnic designs and great fascination. As these masks were commercially produced, traditional mask-making became more rare and lost some of its importance within the culture.

African masks also had an integral part in the fine art world as they were an impetus in the Cubist and abstract art movements. Artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were directly influenced by these masks and appreciated them for their abstraction and beauty. Some early African masks can bring many thousands of dollars. Your mask is part of a heddle loom and dates to the early 20th century. I would value it at $350.


More from our series on Pamela Smart

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Lasting Symbol

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Hammered Artwork

Because it was handmade, copper repoussé was popular during the Arts and Crafts movement.

A Classic Mint Julep Cup

Mint julep cups are passed from generation to generation.
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