How can the modern African mask add to centuries of tradition?
The traditional African mask is a global fascination; one often misunderstood and misrepresented, but full of undeniable attraction. The history, culture, craftsmanship, and artistry that has gone into them is compelling to many people of different backgrounds.
They are often used as part of a procession and full costume, are common all across Africa, spanning Angola to Nigeria, and go back centuries. Their meanings vary, with something as simple as a color representing entirely different things to people from separate regions.
Western artists like Picasso first gained an appreciation for the pieces starting in the early 1900s and introduced them to the world outside the continent.
But a range of African artists have been reimagining the African mask with new materials and new subject matter. Perhaps the most well known and longest-working artist in this field is Romuald Hazoumé from Benin. His work often revolves around the jerrican, a plastic container widely used to transport oil in his home country. He started working with the jugs as a child.
The jerrican can be found in younger artists’ work as well, like Ghana’s Serge Attukwei Clottey. His use of discarded materials is meant to draw attention to the environmental and social impacts these articles have. Most of the artists use everyday objects, things that can be found in daily life. Repurposed metal scraps, old lights and gears, and woven fabrics can be seen in many of these works.
Artists like Zak Ové are less concerned with material and emphasize literal messages. One of his most recent sculptures is painted in the colors of the American flag and has arms raised in the “Hands up, don’t shoot” pose of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It doesn’t necessarily take a young “Artist” (with a capital A) seeking a global audience to make the masks relevant to today’s issues. Some peoples’ traditions are nearly as current as your local gallery. Take Malawi’s Nyau society, who’ve incorporated masks like Elvis and Charlie Chaplain, which the Brooklyn Museum pointed out in their own show on the subject. And the appeal of masks continues through traditional practices spanning the diaspora on many continents. But the modern mask is an interesting extension of this vast movement.
Take a look below at nine modern African masks, in no particular order, created by the internationally-renown and unknown alike.