In West Africa where the greatest diversity of these creations exist, masks are used for ceremonies of many kinds and their varieties include depictions of human and animal faces as well as other figures which have specific meaning to the makers such as snakes and birds and other representations of spiritual significance. At dance ceremonies in Africa one might well see young masked men who are unidentified appear from the nearby forest, dance their assigned parts and return to where they came from to complete their tribal initiation rites. These dancers hide their identities behind masks so that the dance is the focus rather than the individual performing them. The spirit worship of West Africans as well as several other peoples around the world is symbolized in these ceremonial objects. They are also fine representations of traditional art often created with great skill and detail.
Among the other masks in my collection are depictions of Colonial figures, animals and other subjects carved in Africa or Mexico, another center of mask making. Since I have been to Mexico many times, my masks remind me of the variety of Indian tribes that still carry forth many of the traditions of their history. Quite a few of these masks are palpable representations of old, spirit worshipping cultures influenced by the Conquistadors who imposed Catholicism yet allowed such traditional art and notions to flourish. Similar masks exist in some areas of South America where celebrations like Carnaval motivate mask makers to continue to carve and experiment with their artistry.
But masks, though they may be influenced greatly by the traditions and values of a particular group, may also be just artistic objects. A few of my masks are simply lovely craftsmanship. One of the first masks I ever bought was carved in the Berber area of Morocco, hardly a major mask-making location. While it is only tangentially related to the culture where it was made, it is definitely a lovely piece of art. In places like India and Nepal, many masks represent gods. Some of these are used ceremonially while others decorate temples and pagodas and walls in homes of the reverent, well-off citizens. And some of the masks I encountered were the product of wonderful serendipity. A passing mention to the captain of a small ship I was on in Borneo resulted in an unplanned stop in a small village on the Mahakam River where I secured a wonderful mask created for the upcoming celebration of an event there somewhat like our New Year's celebration. A brief walk from my modest hotel on the little island of Sumba east of Bali took me to a store which was full of antique, interesting masks created by the tribe that inhabits that area. One of my favorites is a mask of a bearded man I bought in that store for next to nothing. Whatever their use or purpose may have been before I bought them, these wonderful artifacts decorate my home and constantly bring me back to some of the most wonderful places and fascinating experiences I have ever had. The gods and the devils, the dogs and birds, the alligators and tigers all follow me as I walk through my house. What a sublime byproduct of my travel.
Rangda Dance Mask, Bali, Indonesia