Dallas Museum of Art houses an extensive collection of African masks. The virtual exhibition speaks thoughtfully about the spiritual value of masks and their use in religious dance and public performances:
“The image of an African mask first appeared in the central Sahara thousands of years ago. The inhabitants of the Stone Age left a trace of their presence in rock art in Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria, where they painted a human figure whose size and features are exaggerated. The figure is interpreted as a masked dancer wearing a tied costume. Through this disguise, the dancer transformed into a deity or a spirit. Whatever the purpose of the disguise, scholars cite this painting, dated 8000-6000 BCE, as the earliest evidence of one of the most important of all African art forms: masks. Carved wooden masks are a highly developed and enduring African art form that is appreciated for its expressive qualities.
Adorned and endowed with great spirituality, it is no wonder that masks have become a mainstay of tourist art and export artefacts of all content. But is it ethical?
Masks are a particularly complicated battleground given the long history of Western extraction of such objects for display in museums and private collections. As French President Emmanuel Macron declared in 2017, “I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France… African heritage can no longer be a prisoner of European museums.
One by one, several research institutes and public museums in the United States and Europe have slowly followed in Macron’s footsteps. Recently and publicly, the Netherlands and Germany declared their intention to return the stolen colonial relics for various moral reasons. The about-face of major cultural institutions ushered in conversations in galleries, auctions and dinner tables about the ethics of extracting antiques, especially those of spiritual value, from the communities that created them. .
On an individual level, ethical travelers and art collectors ask themselves: Is there a way to responsibly stage a mask made in Africa as a decoration? Is it predatory to buy an old mask while visiting the mainland? Is it problematic to use formal rooms as decor in a modern home? These very valid questions strike at the heart of ethical debates about the use of authentic masks outside their place of origin.
Judy Dinnerman from African Masks Plus Gallery in New Hope, Pa., says she “always talks with clients about placing masks on the walls of their homes instead of painting flat or printing. The masks were sculpted by artists and represent life in many instances. The masks are witty and add a three dimensional design to the walls. Masks have their own life and add interest, intrigue, design and make a room warm, interesting and inviting … Each mask brings dynamic and exciting personality and mood.
Dinnerman travels personally to collect from artisans in countries such as Ghana, Togo, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. And early next year, she is traveling to Congo, Cameroon, Mali and Nigeria to enrich the collection of more than 1,000 pieces of sculptures, masks and crafts in her gallery. The very act of sourcing from those doing the work is important. Not only does this allow collectors to responsibly identify the specific origins of the coin they purchased, it ensures that those who worked to make it benefit directly from the resale. After all, this ethical question is not only about the spiritual element of masks, it is also about the economy of Art markets in Africa.
Many travelers buy tourist artwork that reproduces the appearance of an original. These masks tend to be purely decorative and have never been used in a ceremony. Skilled mask maker and performance artist Julio Leitão reassures future owners that even replicas “serve to educate people about who we are.” They don’t have to mean anything as long as you like the way they make you feel in your home. They can be just decorative. Originally from Angola, Leitão produces art that draws inspiration from his childhood memories of authentic Luba masks, used in ritual performances for protection and connection with ancestral spirits. Today, his stylized works are aesthetically contemporary. They are deliberately designed for dramatic effect and its originals should not be confused with something you might come across in a market in Accra or Kigali. Buyers of modern works certainly eliminate the ethical tension surrounding buying a piece that claims to be authentic.
Leitão says that many skilled artisans make such claims as a marketing tactic. Burying a replica for months or burning it with vinegar can make a perfectly new mask look and feel like an antique. As dishonest as it may sound, the practice of raising prices helps many struggling artists earn enough money to feed their families and pursue their art. Due to the limited interest of domestic buyers, artists and artisans on the continent suffer from over-reliance on highly volatile foreign tourism. Socio-economic inequality creates serious power imbalances between a potential buyer and a seller. This imbalance may be even more true for those who choose to sell heirlooms that are authentic.
In many tourist markets, it is actually quite difficult to find a truly authentic ceremonial mask. The deliberate search for a real one would require a great appreciation of art history and a penchant for cultural literacy. As Leitão says, “a lot of these things are no longer used, because modern society has killed traditions. The alternative is therefore to put [a mask] a place where they can be used to educate the next generation about the value and preservation of ourselves and our own identity. In these cases, collectors can become the custodians of an evolving culture, but it is worth pondering any sense of paternalism that accompanies this prospect.
A long history of looting and appropriation of African crafts and culture makes the sale and possession of masks still controversial. Very few people would sell such an important item if they could make a living otherwise. And if the purpose of buying an authentic piece is to profit from a resale, then it continues a cycle of cultural extraction that the continent has endured for centuries.
“Colonialism did not end so long ago. I am still alive, and I have lived under colonialism, ”recalls Leitão, who was born under Portuguese imperialism. It was not until 1975 that Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe and Cape Verde gained their independence. “When you talk about masks, you are really talking about everything. This is not an isolated discussion … It is a system, ”reiterates Leitão.
When acquired and displayed with respect for the people who made them, the masks and the patterns they inspire can be a true nod to the indigenous cultures from which they originate. Percy Maimela, a contemporary South African artist, uses masks in his drawings because he believes they represent Ubuntu, the South African idea which loosely translates to “humanity”.
Using its framework, contemporary artists and collectors do not need to look to the Gods to gauge the value of their work. When considering the ethics of owning a ceremonial mask, it is imperative that buyers take stock of human history and assess their intentions within this larger context. “No matter where we are in the world, the truth is that we are part of humanity, and in this I believe our lives are influenced by the past, present and future,” says Maimela.
This continuing lineage plays into his own work: “I found a mask that has fingerprint lines to represent DNA, which symbolizes our history,” he says. “The aerodynamic shape of the mask is a symbol of the future and focus. This shape also emphasizes that you can create your own path.” For Maimela, masks have a moral function as a practical reminder that “our lives have a purpose greater than our selfish individuality. Therefore, we must know that our actions will always affect others.”
The long overdue institutional repatriation of incredibly rare and valuable works is certainly an acknowledgment of the truth behind his words. Yet individual ownership of ceremonial and antique masks is still firmly at the epicenter of ethical debates over cultural appropriation versus appreciation.
Like the masks themselves, this debate is both historical and enduring, and its meaning is often more complex than one might first think.
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Nafeesah Allen is an independent researcher interested in literature, gender and diaspora studies in the Global South. In 2019, she completed her doctorate. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa. she directs BlackHistoryBookshelf.com, a book review website that highlights global black histories organized by language, topic and country. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @theblaxpat.
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