African Ritual Masks: "Value" or "Values"?

Over the last 2 years I have watched and read with fascination (and I must admit, moments of both amusement and annoyance) as debate has ebbed and flowed around African art in the west. Everywhere I turn, antique hunters, individuals and auction houses have been crying “real or not?” or probably more realistically “valuable or not?”

My annoyance comes from a feeling that this type of commercial “one-up-manship” has been trivializing objects based on their dollar value, the previous owner or the objects documented age, and diverting from ritual and/or aesthetic appreciation.

I say that I have watched in mild amusement because the juxtaposition of western and African realities (which are literally poles apart) mean that any western attempts to reconcile African values and associate them with the western value of an object are almost wholly redundant. Each time I hear dealers or collectors espousing the virtues of provenance, criticizing newer ritual objects from the continent on the basis of “age”, arguing “copyist art isn’t real art” or stating that European paint on objects means that they are not authentic, I picture them seated in a leather arm chair, surrounded by books in a wood paneled room reeking of beeswax and think how far that is from the dust and grit carried on the Hartmann wind that sweeps Djiguibombo on the Dogon Plateau.


An “s” on the end of “value” makes all the difference in the world to how objects are considered. As John Russell said, in the New York Times, “African art was not meant for collectors and dealers or even for disinterested enjoyment”. It was meant, as Susan Vogel said, to express and support fundamental spiritual values that are essential to the survival of the community”.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert. I have only been to Africa a few times over the years - the two most recent trips were to central and eastern Africa for 3 months, and this year to Mali for 3 weeks. Each time I have tried to explore as an individual, outside the tourist routes, and have taken an unplanned approach via local transport. In my limited experience there are still some wonderful ritual masks and objects to be collected on the continent; some old,. some new. Two pieces I recently acquired in Mali are shown in Fig. 2. I have seen thousands of masks but have never brought home more than ½ dozen pieces.


Old masks aren’t necessarily “good”, it is just a historical reference point, the promise of which is too often used for commerce and to drive up the dollar value (both in Africa and the west). Quality now seems to be defined by age (“its old!”), rather than by “quality” itself. On the other hand, new isn’t bad. But the “character” of new African ritual art has been influenced by tourist art, faux carvings with simulated age and workshop replicas – funnily enough, these are art forms in their own right, to be knowledgably embraced for what they are: tourist art, faux carvings with simulated age and workshop replicas.

I have come to believe that the African art collector/seller recognizes an item’s construction and the ritual/historical data connected directly with it - the reference point is isolated aesthetic and commercial value. The African art lover binds the item and the history with a broader social understanding - the motivations and lives of the villages, sellers and traders as much as the work itself – and makes a deeper personal connection.

Veronique Martelliere captured some of the sentiment in 2006 when she wrote …I always think about the person who made these objects. Behind the object, there is always one person. "Before drinking from a well, always have a thought for the man who dug it”. ... An object can start its life being a religious symbol. When it is taken out of its religious context, it can start a new career by becoming a piece of art. It gets another type of respect…

In recent research I have come across passages from various authors that have added another dimension to the ethnographic data I was seeking or highlighted aspects of my own experience. So, for my own interest, I have unashamedly borrowed from these passages (sometimes word for word), tried to expand on some and weld others together. With abject apologies to the original authors, what follows is a collage of opinion that may (or may not) add another dimension to the value(s) you attribute to that next mask you find or buy.

Looking Back to Look Forward
The written passage that triggered this exercise was from African Art in the Cycle of Life, by Roy Sieber and Roslyn Adele Walker. It proposed that ‘where a ritual piece of African art is “born”, the creators of the piece do not create it by living a life looking forward, only back over an endless rhythm of days, seasons and years’.

“It is the rhythm of nature which nothing can destroy. On the level of the individual this rhythm includes birth, puberty, initiation, marriage, procreation, old age, death and entry into the community of the departed (all of these are ritual markers)…the key moments in the life of an individual. On the community or national level, there is the cycle of the seasons with their different activities such as sowing cultivating, harvesting and hunting”

It made me realize that in the western world our markers are social and always considered from a forward looking perspective (When will I make more money? When will I buy that house? How old will I be when I retire? When will I buy my next piece of African art?). Generally they are about personal gratification rather than celebrating a rhythm of life. This is an indication as to why western consideration is often one dimensional (dollar value and the linear nature of provenance). But the objects being considered are multi-dimensional. Their form and construction is based on both breadth and depth. Their depth (or the time vertical) is the ritual marker they represent, the “rhythm of days, seasons, years” benchmarked by social and ritual elements of lives. Their width is their multiplicity of meaning.

 “African art and most especially their ritual masks are characterized by a multiplicity of meanings and intellectual complexity. These different meanings exist concurrently and harmoniously within the same work at any given point and sometimes even extend or change its meaning over time. They give the piece an even larger (broader) sense of symbolic or intellectual grounding than it otherwise might have (in contrast to western Christian art traditions of iconography where forms generally convey a single meaning or representation).  In African art a single form is often intended to mean many things (literally and figuratively), eliciting different levels of response from different members of society, depending on age, level of knowledge and level of initiation”.

To add to this complexity it is also important to understand that most often the art or artifact is not the spirit of the representation, merely a reflection and holding point for it. When the “vessel” is damaged, outdated, worn or simply no longer aesthetically pleasing in line with changing tastes it becomes an empty utilitarian object no longer of need or use. So it is discarded or more commonly sold.

From Ritual Vehicle to Utilitarian Object
The mask at Fig. 3 is an excellent example of a ritual vehicle with incredible breadth and depth of representation. This Ntomo mask was collected in the Segou region in 2007, it is typically carved of wood, covered with cowrie shells (a form of currency formerly used throughout the Sudan) and the remnants of blood red Abrus precatorius seeds.


Ntomo gathers pre-pubescent boys, separates them from their families, organizes them into age grades, and conducts training that culminates with their ritual circumcision.

French researchers in the 20th century were fascinated by the complexity of Ntomo. Under this mask boys in training re-enacted the creation of the world, the figures and the number of horns are intended to “reveal the inner life of the human being” and symbolized important principles; four referred to femininity, three was a male number and seven was the number of the couple. The female figure was also described as a reference to sacred history, primordial man in his androgynous state and a reminder to boys of the training they had received concerning the opposite sex.

In an auctioneers catalogue this complexity is reduced to a dollar sign, a short stab at creating a provenance trail and brief descriptive text describing a utilitarian object rather than a spiritual vessel. To be fair, the utilitarian sales process is as prevalent in Africa as it is in the west, and is also well represented by Fig. 3.

The Deputy Director of the National Museum in Bamako viewed the mask in on behalf of the Director Samuel Sidibe, to approve it for export out of Mali. He agreed that the mask was genuine, had good age and showed significant signs of use. But the process of purchasing the mask had been straightforward involving confirming a price (dollar sign) followed by a quick sales pitch on the village and style of the carving (provenance and descriptive text). It then involved 3 telephone calls by an intermediary to the senior village representative, a much longer discussion on its merits and an exchange of money after a hard bargaining process. An auction without the catalogue!

However, collecting in the field I have occasionally seen the residual effect of an object’s ritual power. In Begnimato on the Bandiagara escarpment in Mali I was taken through the holding area for the “in use” village masks – the children trailing us could not follow and photos could not be taken. Later that afternoon, after several cups of tea and several hours of discussion about the mask styles and rituals, the Kanaga mask in Fig. 4&4a was revealed. Women and children (who were not allowed in the mask holding area) were allowed to stay and our discussions continued. Suddenly a stream of Dogon invective was fired over my right shoulder in staccato bursts at the group of children that had silently crept closer and closer to get a better look at the mask (not the white guy on the steps of the hut). They fled without looking over their shoulders. When I asked questions later that afternoon, I was told that although the mask had been decommissioned, it had still been one of the village masks and they should still have shown respect for the custom of the ritual.


  • 21-3-2008

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