Text of Anne-Marie Bouttiaux


Masks of Africa are part of a particular universe that it is sometimes difficult to surround. For those that have l ' habit to see them expositions, done hang devitalized to a wall, how to imagine this that they represent at their creators and their users?

The incontestable plastic qualities whose masks are invested often kept the attention to the detriment of functions that they could fill. Fortunately, this vision extremely reducing has tendency to disappear to the profit of study deepened putting in evidence the role of these substitution faces. But it remains strange hiatuses again, as if categories of masks could not have caused the interest of researchers. This is how for certain African societies one could see of historians of the art to be interested in masks sculpted in wood, ivory or metal, of anthropologists to dedicate themselves to the social, political or religious institution survey and some objects to fall in the oblivion. By exemple,hormis some notorious examples, masks of leaves of plant substance heap have often been disregarded. Yet, from the moment where a society uses masks (that it is to the ritual ends, festives, political or social), it seems obvious that all categories of these objects occupy a fundamental room in a vast coherent whole.

In spite of efforts of these last decades and even when it is about sculpted masks, little study reflected the set of elements that constitute one of their apparitions. It is necessary to imagine that in general, every society that has recourse to masks uses several of them. Some accumulating until fifty different mask types. Each of them, if it was considered in its whole complexity, could be the object of a book. Because the world of masks is traced on the one of men, and how to study the human society without making intervene etc. of linguists, of sociologists, of psychologists, of politologueses, of economists, of philosophers,

The anthropologist or historian of the art can assume all with difficulty these domains and, unfortunately, the multidisciplinary research are not legion.

The conception.

All African society that uses masks possesses a set of oral traditions that permit to situate this institution. The origin of masks, their apparition in the human community and their evolution is part of histories carefully memorized and recited in certain contexts. Their existence can be associated to a cosmological theory, to the heroic acts of a being mythique,fondateur of the ethnie or generally to the prompt discoveries of certain forebears. Among the most current theories one notes the need of incarnation of certain minds of the nature or the necessity of men to grant their favors while offering them a case by the slant of the mask. The sexual discrimination that often separates women of the mask world sometimes goes back at these times mythiques.Il is not rare to see them like first holders incapable assuming the heavy load that represents the interview and the cult of these precious faces! Since this legendary origin, the society produces masks with the progression of needs but it is necessary to often unite a certain number of conditions before can proceed to the actual manufacture of a new object. Processes of divination, notably can lead to the conclusion that a new mask is necessary after a dream or an unexpected évènement. It also arrives that ask to be able to transport some cults in their new place of dwelling of families that decide to get settled in another village. The speed and the easiness of the displacement will depend on the degree of the sacredness of the object of which it is necessary to reduce the magique.Pour efficiency the profane masks, nearly exclusively used in a context of entertainment, steps that precede the manufacture are simplified logically to the extreme and the alone desire to possess some a can be sufficient to make manufacture it. Nevertheless the mask becomes never a petty object and most the time, even least sacred among them keep a supernatural gas.

Case of the divine.

Of the dreamed mask and wanted it is necessary to pass to the made mask. In this case again, most sacred are going to require a maximum of precautions. The sculptor of mask has a particular statute well often in the society because he creates a case of the divine when he doesn't give birth frankly to a mind (more that, we will see it farther, it is often necessary that a supplementary ritualist comes to add some magic ingredients or to dedicate the object so that he is efficient.) Some societies even prefer for their mask of sculptors to the particular statute fundamentally different of those that manufacture objects of the daily life. n can itself that this man is the blacksmith, ambiguous, dangerous, and often casté in number of cultures since manipulator of fire. The choice of the manufacture material is also topic to the ritual preparations: one doesn't take any wood for a mask, and it is necessary to often offer a sacrifice the mind of the tree that one is going to cut down to avoid all supernatural reprisals. The place where the mask takes shape is not insignificant either: it is often the sacred forest: space of bush situated outside of the secret activity village,lieu, forbidden to non insiders.

The incarnation, the mask takes life.

When the sculpted face is ready, it must be embodied, dressed, carried. Generally, the object conceals only is not directly powerful, it is necessary to dedicate it by a set of rituals, to offer him of sacrifices, to call the mind to take down some him, to put it in the same way etc. in contact with other specimens nature, to invoke forebears, All these processes is taken in charge by a dressed ritualist and well often himself enclosed of a supernatural power allowing him to manipulate the magic substances. The choice of the costume is also submitted to numerous conditions. Every

mask has requirements and caprices: it concerns the quality of cloth, the plant fiber freshness, their nature, their color, the manner of which one attaches them, the order to follow for the clothing, the no one that attends, the pronounced words. And as usual, more the mask is consecrated these details more are rigorous and more mistakes committed in relation to this formalism irreparable. Then, this more loaded object by force magic must be carried. The society recruits, following the precise criterias, a man whose physical and psychological qualities allow him to assume this transformation. In good of cases the carrier must be indeed, an exceptional dancer, an athlete, or an actor of talent and almost always a particularly protected individual spiritually. During days, or even months that precede a benefit, he can adopt a food, a behavior and a rhythm

of life individuals. The set of these special arrangements already put it in an abnormal situation that moves away it of the common of mortals. Its benefits often require an experience and a technique infallible in domains of the dance, the mime or acrobatics. It is not rare to see to train it in the sacred and same forest to proceed to real repetitions with a several of musicians that comes with him. In general, the carrier of mask shares a big connivance with the percussionist soloist. These privileged reports often take where to the real choreographies two artists enter in dialogue. The rhythm sustains and paraphrase

literally the dancer who also inspires in return of new musical sequences. The body of the carrier becomes very often the instrument of expression of the mind either represented by masks content in it. One attends, in good of cases, to a coming down of mind that can go from the trance light to the actual possession, depending on whether the dancer's personality is again in part present but unobtrusive or that it is evacuated literally by the spirituelle.Dans presence the first case, the carrier remained conscious of what happens; in the second, it forgets everything that it executed when it carried the mask and stand up exhausted and stunned. When one waits of the carrier for a restraint perfected of its movements with the structured sequences and precise, its mistakes are punished severely and sometimes deadly. Imagine a mask, incarnation of a divine gas being, that stumbles, miss a pirouette or tomb, and it is well often all the consistency of a religious system that collapses. Consequences of such a disaster can be terrifying and can have repercussions on the entièreté of the village. A large number of people are part of a masked demonstration and are indispensable so that it can take place: musicians, singers, let's eat greedily, helpers of the mask and very sensible spectators.

According to the type of mask other people are evacuated on the other hand imperatively: following cases, it can be about women, of men, of slaves, of non insiders, of strangers, etc.

Once again, every mask has its requirements, and every rupture of forbidden, its sanctions.


(Article published in Demain le monde, n° 24/25. May/june 1998, pp 68-69)