Tribe Masks


Primary Tribal masks are often noticed by unknowing eyes because art objects in themselves. That is not the case, unless of course they may be modern copies. A tribal mask has embued power and is alive during the ceremony for which it is used. A good African visitor to a London museum stated, “This mask is dead. ” He was seeing the face mask out of context, it experienced lost its power for the people who created it and the the magic had died.

To the collectors eyes the very appearance of the mask and the story behind it leads to the wonder. The mysterious art forms drawing on the imagination along with a need to interpret. As an artwork it has the power to include the observer in fathoming meaning to reach an understanding. This could move the viewer into a different frame of research. Touching a life style which is at once strange and distance, yet it has the feel of something closer to house. A paradox that appears to arise in studying older tribal ways. In a selection this is magic.

It is also vital that you appreciate that nearly all face masks are part of a full outfit. Often the costume is made from much less durable materials and does not endure. Indeed some masks are also made of less durable materials, such as the basketery Yam mask, developed by the Abelam in Papua New Guinea. And once again some masks are destroyed as part of the ceremony for which these are used.

The commonality within masking traditions

Delving back to the earliest recordings, historically, a trip to the caves of 3 Feres in France is enlightening. Picture this decorated Paleolithic scene.

A main figure stands wearing the head and antlers of a deer. He stands, shaman such as, surround by animals. Pets that are important to the tradition he represents. Some of the creatures no longer exist in this area. Ibex, reindeer, bison, stag and horses. The shaman, for that is what he seems to be, holders, a human figure between the potential food. What miracle he is creating or ancestors he is communicating with we do not know. Yet from our knowledge of tribal people studied in times nearer to ours it is possible to understand the hyperlinks. The need to hunt for food is essential to survival. The gods link all matters, stay in good standing with the gods and food will be available. Get only what can be used fairly and do not violate the organic laws. Life goes on, adopting the seasons. There is a balance to life and death. The link between them is maintained by the wizard, shaman, wizard, witch physician, whatever you wish to call him.

During my studies of goggles this relationship between the marvelous and the shaman constantly arises. There is a commonality between the historic cultures of the Pacific Western Coast of North America ( now Canada and Alaska ) and the tribal traditions of Africa. Fertility, the particular hunted animal, ancestors, initiation, circumcision, cannibalism real and symbolic, healing and traversing over into the spirit world for guidance and recovery powers or to appease the gods or ancestors. Each one of these occur in different traditions distribute around the world.

As you allow yourself to delve into the traditions encircling masks in Europe something interesting arises. Here the particular traditions have been sanitised from the surrounding culture and the cathedral. Yet when you delve back and attempt to understand the masking traditions, now displayed as individuals lore, ineresting parallels are revealed. Whilst in Belgium I witnessed a processions depicting witches and plus modern giants. Other masquerades also have links to witchcraft and by implication to shaman. One powerful link is the seasonal nature of many customs. The Green man as well as the Hobby horse being 2 examples.

Forgive me. I really could continue to wax lyrical concerning the links in our current traditions seen as folk lore to those of our ancient ancestors. In my experience there is a tremnedous link that is bound up with the very character of the people we are and how we have developed. Our formative roots live in our communities now. That is why I discover masks so powerfully evocative. Along with other forms of primitive and traditional art we can trace our own links to earlier times. Even today the shaman and magician exists following ancient magik rules.

Even contemporary latex masks contain some of the same magic, because they are linked back to the same collective subconscious and traditions of masquerade, disguise and the spirit globe. As a school teacher I have come across some quite vociferous reactions by parents to having Halloween in school. Some see its pagan links and reject it. The seam runs deep into the modern psyche. Perhaps the most potent place to view this link is in the Mexican Day of the Dead Celebrations. This festivity combines a mix of Christian plus Pagan practices. In particular Halloween party has a juxtaposition between the deceased and children. Here children are masked to scare away the evil spirits and appear after the dead. By this implies a link with the ancestors plus children is perpetuated.

One more fascinating link between the face masks of many cultures is the idiot. The fool has many characteristics, the most noticeable of which can be paradox. The fool can be wise and foolish; handsome and ugly; playful plus barbaric. He straddles the line between the extremes of the other face masks switching from one role to the other. Perhaps the fool simply represents the many dualities and paradoxes in life.

Also the particular fool plays a full part in the staging of the practice. Noohlmahl in the Kwakwaka’wakw rituals is a grotesque creature covered in hair with snot pouring from his nasal area. He struts about amusing the crowd, making humor and anticipating reponses. Should the reponses become too acquainted a violent response might be expected. Of course the reactions to the watchers comments might be of another more humourous nature. Surprise and paradox are essential to the nature of fools. Another of their jobs is to control the children.
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He treads the line in between clowning for them and ensuring that they do not disrupt proceedings. Just like the inappropriate comments from adults a violent response can be provoked should the kids, literally, over step the queue.

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