Strictly speaking, masks are designed to hide the faces of the people who wear them. But masks themselves are also faces presented to the world, the alter-egos of their wearers as well as windows into the societies that made them. In this way, masks conceal while exposing, obfuscate while revealing, camouflage while laying bare.

Those who gravitate toward such ineffable examples of visual art, though, are generally guided by geography rather than lofty sounding metaphysical conceits. Many seek out the wooden tribal masks of Africa, which were popularized in the Western world by artists such as Pablo Picasso. Others favor the raffia and sea-shell decorated masks of Oceania, the bug-eyed head coverings worn in parts of Indonesia, or the totemistic constructions engineered by indigenous peoples along 1,000 miles of North America’s Pacific coast, from the Columbia River, which defines the Washington-Oregon border, to Yakutat Bay, Alaska, which is less than a day’s hike from the southwestern edge of Canada’s Yukon territory.

African masks are usually divided into those from West Africa (including present-day Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone) and equatorial Africa (primarily present-day Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was known throughout much of the 20th century as Zaire). Historic masks from these areas that are bought and sold at prestigious auction houses are identified by both their country of origin and the tribe that made them. For example, the Dogon of central Mali were famous for their boxy antelope masks, as well as the Dama masks worn during rituals for departed ancestors. The Bambara, also from Mali, are known for their antelope headdresses called chi wara, which can be decoded to further identify their source based on their shapes and orientation (vertical or horizontal).

Other ceremonies associated with African masks are initiation rites, for which the Bijugo of the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau made helmets in the shapes of sharks and bulls, complete with horns. Then there are the masks made by Ivory Coast tribes such as the Dan, whose dark, almond-shaped carvings depict everything from mountain spirits to ideals of female beauty.

Masks from equatorial Africa are prized for their lavish adornment. Braided fiber, glass beads, cowrie shells, and feathers are routinely affixed to outsize masks that cover the face, extend well beyond the top of the head, and often down the chest as well. Well known mask-making tribes of the former Zaire include the Yaka (one of several tribes that made large kakuungu masks), the Kuba (actually a catchall for more than 20 tribes near the Kasai and and Sankuru rivers), and the Chokwe (masks worn by dancers include the cihongo for men and the pwo for women).

Popular masks in Asia include many types that were (and, in some cases, still are) used in plays, which are similar to rituals inasmuch as the roles of the wearers are codified and broadly understood by audiences. Tall, multi-headed papier-mâché headdresses were worn by Thai actors performing Khon plays; carved wooden masks with the faces of demons (complete with bared teeth and vertical third eyes) were made for tsham plays performed in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet; and painted wooden Noh masks are practically synonymous with the art of Japan.


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