Life cycle of masks

Sunday 2 December 2007 by Brad

The mask is always the bearer of a fearsome magical energy for those who animated it as well as those who view it. To understand the origin of this ‘‘power’’, we must look at its origins and at the myths of its creation. The oldest of the mask societies always say that they have been created in a divine way. For the Nuna who belong to the Gurunsi group and live in Burkina Faso the story is told like: « A long time ago, a notable of the village went into the bush to find termites for his chicks that he was breeding. On the way back, after an exhausted day of research, and as the sun set on the horizon, the old notable heard a voice who called him. All around him, the savannah stretched as far as the eye could see. Again, he heard the voice. He glanced at a thorny and overgrown bush : ‘‘Move apart the vines and you will see me’’ said the voice. The notable of the village summon up his courage and entered inside the bush. Then he saw an odd and terrifying object: it was the mask. The fear overcame him, but once again the mysterious voice reassured him : ‘‘Take it. It will be for you and all your descendants, he will protect you against the bad spirits, he will give you happiness and plenty of children. It will be the link between the living and the dead and every year you will organise a party to celebrate it. You will put it out and you will accompany it with other masks from your imagination. These were the words of the mysterious voice. Sceptical but obedient, the notable took the mask and brought it into the village. Respecting tradition he immediately showed it to the chief of the clan who locked it in the fetishes’ hut and the following day summoned the sorcerer of the village. He confirmed and specified the rules of the mask and told of its future roll in their society […]» (extract of the book of Yannick Giorgi, Les masques vivants Patrimoine Nuna, published in 2001 in DésIris and in sale in our ebay shop).

In this way, the mask generally has its own dancer, an appointment which may span several decades. The mask will remain in the same line of descent as it is passed down from generation to generation, or will stay in the secret society. Sometimes,the masks aren’t supernatural powers but the temporary incarnation of a spirit or an ancestor and are constructed by the initiates.

The shape of a mask is traditional and not specific to any other period. Professional or not, the craftsman had to conform to existing models of masks: he doesn’t have free rein and works in great secrecy, generally outside the village. Before starting the work the craftsman choose wood of a suitable quality. To appease the spirit of the felled tree a diviner was occasionally called in to perform the appropriate ceremonies and in addition the sculptor himself had to be in a state of ritual purity.

Despite the importance of such preparations, it is only on its first public appearance with the appropriate ritual that the mask acquired its sacred nature.

Finally, the life of the mask will come to an end. Generally, masks in bark are burned at the end of ritual ceremonies, while wooden masks are preserved. If it is thrown away, its destruction is surrounded with rites destined to transfer its occult forces to another mask.

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