Many African masks represent animals for they are believed to link tribesmen with the land and nature around them. Masks that depict animals help ward off evil spirits, and are symbols of virtue, bravery, or strength. The most common animals represented with masks are buffaloes, hyenas, hawks, crocodiles and antelopes. Masks are often highly stylized because African cultures distinguish between the outer appearance of something and its essence. Thus, masks are made to represent abstract subjects.
African masks influenced Western art: in the early 20th century, artistic movements such as cubism, fauvism and expressionism often took inspiration from the vast heritage of African masks. Artists like Pablo Picasso and Andre Derain were inspired by the bold and abstract designs of African tribal masks, and so they eventually incorporated them in their own styles of Cubism and Fauvism.
In most tribes, only a select few have the honor of wearing a mask. This privilege is often given to men, wise tribesmen, or young men during initiation rites.
It is believed that the spirits of ancestors possess those who wear the masks. As such, during celebrations, initiations or certain rituals, the chosen mask wearer conceptually loses his/her identity and either communicates with the ancestors or turns into the spirit represented by the mask itself. Such ceremonies involve specific types of music, dance and ritual costumes that conceal the mask wearer’s identity.
African mask carving is both a skill and a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation, and carvers need to undergo years of specialized training. Although master mask carvers still exist, they are often hidden away from the rest of society, isolated in small communities.
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