Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Masks That Wear People

Liberian Mask - Unknown function.  Probably a woman's mask.
Samuel B Wrisley Collection

To most Americans the West African mask is African folk craft, or works of 3-D sculpture that helped inspire Picasso's cubism, or perhaps simply a collectible to be acquired and put on display.  To many West Africans the mask is much, much more than this.  While Americans may tend to think of masks as objects that are worn on Mardi Gras or Halloween or just something that we label and put in a museum somewhere; to many Liberians the mask is instead considered to be a living being that actually wears the person behind it.  One could say that the person behind the mask is filled with the spirit of the mask and it is the mask that is acting and not the person.  In fact it is not uncommon for a masked person to still be seen in Liberia dancing and twirling while said to be under the influence of the spirit of the mask.  When Christians first encountered these concepts in the early 1800's they labeled these masked dancers "devils" supposing them to be possessed of a demonic force.  This term is still used in Liberia today and "devils" can still be seen performing in the street of Liberia to this day. 

Liberian Mask.  Resembles a mask worn during times of plague to cleanse village
Samuel B. Wrisley Collection

In some ways the mask is akin to our notions of the police uniform, judge's robes, Santa suit, and priest collar all rolled into one.  Think about this for a moment.... What is it that allows otherwise normal American parents to allow their children to sit on the lap of a strange man taking pictures of them?  Why, it is the Santa suit of course!  And how can a soft-spoken, middle-aged woman tell a muscular,  millionaire, mafia-man that he must pay a hefty fine and give up his freedom in prison and then see that man obey her?  Why, her judge's robe gives her that authority.  Of course there is a vetting system in place before one can don these suits and badges and costumes, but the same is true of West African society.  Masks are specifically made or handed down to specially vetted members of society in order to fulfill different roles that need performed in that society.  

Christmas in Liberia.
Who is that masked woman?

A Gio mask representing the
"Great Spirit of the Jungle"

It hints at the features of the gorilla 
and the crocodile 
And so it is with West African society that many of the societal roles are fulfilled by individuals wearing particular masks.  There are masks worn for judging between disputing parties; masks for retrieving debts; masks for performing sacred ritual;  masks for celebrating special days.  What gives these masks authority is not that the wearer has earned a degree from a respected university and passed some standardized test, but rather that the mask itself has the power to perform this particular task.  In this way the wearer of the mask does not take blame for doing what is done while wearing the mask, but rather the mask is simply doing his job and what needs to be done.  The same sort of mental gymnastics are performed by the masked executioners of our own Western tradition or uniformed soldiers who simply obey orders whatever the spirit of that order may be.  The uniform somehow convinces the wearer that they can do things they otherwise would never do.  The mask functions much the same way.

Plaque showing the 16 major tribes of Liberia
and the masks associated with each tribe.

Speaking of soldiers, in Liberia's recent civil wars there was much press given to the strange "costumes" worn by the combatants in the various rebel factions.  Notice was given to warriors wearing wedding dresses, wigs, toilet seats, Halloween masks, ad nauseam.  The idea was that by wearing these objects the wearer was imbued with certain powers that were found in that object.  (I'm not sure I want to know what power lives in the toilet seat!)  While this object wearing tends more towards what is called "fetishism" there is an overlap here with the concept of the mask. The mask is similar to this idea but it is also much more than that.  The mask is actually a living being that must be fed and prayed to as a living being.  Children have been taught at a very young age to pray to their mask every morning and seek its council.  When they prove themselves competent to handle a true mask, after passing through Poro or Sande initiations for example, either a new one was made for them or an ancestral mask was handed down to them.  The "feeding" of these masks involves sacrifice and the smearing of the blood and/or fat of the sacrifice on the mask.  Depending on the task to be done by the mask or the power and significance of the mask that sacrifice could either be animal or human.

Liberian mask.  Probably associated with the Snake Society
(Notice the snakes for hair and the snake coming from the mouth.)
Snake Society members are known for carrying around
a vial of venom that they lick daily to build up their immunity
They are known as master snake handlers and some are said to be able
to transform themself into a snake.
Samuel B. Wrisley Collection

Close up of the Snake Society mask's mouth  (see above).

Close up on "Snake Hair" on the Snake Society Mask (see above)

Seashells are woven into the back cloth of the Snake Society mask (see above)

Back of Snake Society Mask
A cloth has been nailed to the back
which covers the back of wearer's head
There was a very scholarly work done by Dr. George Way Harley on the masks of West Africa and particularly Liberia.  The name of this work is "Masks As Agents of Social Control in Northeast Liberia."  Dr. Harley was a Christian missionary in Ganta, Liberia and even met Graham Greene on his famous trek through Liberia that resulted in his ground breaking book "Journey Without Maps" to which this blog pays homage.  If you are interested in learning more about the function of these masks I highly recommend his paper on the subject.  Much of his collection of masks was given to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and can be seen there or online at the provided link. 

A souvenir Liberian mask
Samuel B. Wrisley Collection

If you travel to Liberia, more than likely the only contact you'll have with Liberian masks are from the "charlies" (traveling salesmen), wood carvers (these are souvenirs and not true "living" masks) or the occasional masked street performer.  True masked "devils" are not to be seen by outsiders and the ones that dance in public are more touristy than anything.  However, one major faux pas is to try to touch or see behind the costume of the dancer even if he is just doing it for tips.  This traces back to the fact that true masked "devils" could punish the unauthorized person that saw him with death.  This is also why most masked dancers will be seen with a partner that keeps the raffia dress brushed down so no skin is showing and will also prevent any other inadvertent exposure on the part of the dancer.  

A masked "devil" performing.
Spectators believe the devil will bring them good fortune.

There are numerous types of masks and Dr. Harley's work does a great job in explaining many of them.  To sum, there are masks for every society and sub-society imaginable.  There are small masks for children and/or to be used as "passports" between tribes.  There are masks for the women and even one that supposedly makes the woman that wears it a man and able to go into the men's sacred grove.  There are masks for administrating sassywood ordeals or other such vicious ordeals to settle disputes.  There are death masks made especially to cover the face of a deceased yet important person.  There are masks worn by the circumciser on the day of ritual, the zoe while performer special ceremonies, the chief when handling certain situations, the town jester when things just need to be lightened up a bit.  The list could go on and on.  To sum, the mask is a concept that is much different to a Liberian than it is to an American and you would be better prepped to understand this culture by investigating those differences for yourself.     

1 comment:

  1. I have Dr. Harley's books. My parents while living in Liberia, visited him. I also have many wood souvenirs from Liberia, including masks, combs, paintings and statues. I sold 2 helmet masks and some of the textiles that my parents collected. My Liberian friend, now living in Iowa said so much of the art and culture from Liberia was destroyed during the war. She says that I am lucky to have a nice collection.