Masks Large and Small

Few artistic expressions are so intimately associated with Africa as masks. Masquerades are among the most complex and prominent Africa’s traditional art forms, uniting the creative efforts of sculptors, performers, attendants, musicians, and spectators, while the masks themselves display a dazzling variety of shapes, functions, and expressive powers. This exhibition includes large helmet masks, masks worn in front of the face or at an angle on top of the head, and miniature masks that are often wrapped and kept on the owner’s body.

Among the Dan people and their neighbors, a mask—large or small—is typically created after a dream in which someone encounters a forest or household spirit. The spirit wishes to become incarnated in a mask, which is commissioned from an artist and consecrated through performances and offerings. Both large and small masks may serve as altars— focal points for human-spirit interactions—revealed by crusty traces of food and oil.