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5 Fun Facts about African Masks

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A mask is mysterious as it is sacred. In most cultures, a mask is worn to intimidate a rival tribe during clan wars or, on the lighter side, a mask makes a traditional wedding more celebratory. In Africa, masks represent animals and ancestors, and wearing one, they believe, turns a tribal warrior or leader into an invincible force to reckon with. Probably thousands of masks have been forgotten about, but some surface to the modern era and are now part of exhibits around the world.

The BELvue Museum in Brussels, Belgium is exhibiting a set of masks used by young males during their initiation rites. Gypsetters traveling to Belgium must stop by this exhibit to learn more about African culture, and eventually about the human race itself.

The exhibit, entitled Giant Masks from the Congo, shows several African masks worn by mukanda males (a term for a young man’s circumcision ceremony). This rite of passage is very important in African culture and it is still practiced today. Probably without the masks and with modern tools, but historically mukanda used masks to signify a young man’s entry into a wiser plane. 

The collection is the ethnographic trump for Jesuit missionaries in the Congo. Today, it serves as a look into African heritage–one of a kind pieces showcasing human creativity and individuality.

In celebration of the exhibit’s recent opening, here are five fun facts about African masks that you should know about before entering The BELvue.

1. ONE WITH NATURE. According to The History of Masks Online, “… Masks are highly stylized because African cultures distinguish between the outer look of something and its essence.” More often than not masks represent animals that may help them ward off evil spirits from entering villages or may symbolize values such as virtue, bravery, or strength.

2. ENTRANCED. The wearing of masks requires its own ceremony, and the wearer goes into a deep trance and “communicates” with his ancestors. But it’s not all that pensive. Rebirth Africa writes that such a ceremony involves song and dance, as well as a “translator” for the dead, which makes this ritual a communal experience.

3. A LIVING TRADITION. Mask carvers still do exist, Contemporary African Art explains, although they are hidden away from the rest of society. Much like the T’Nalak weavers of the T’boli cultural group in the Philippines, African mask carving is passed on from generation to generation, and is usually isolated in a small community.

Some masks take the form of a tribe's wise ancestor or an animal known for its qualities of surviving the wild

Some masks take the form of a tribe’s wise ancestor or an animal known for its qualities of surviving the wild

4. INSPIRING ART FORM. Did you know early 20th century artists such as Pablo Picasso were inspired by the bold details of African masks? Arty Factory says that artists of yore collected masks and very much influenced their own art style.

5. SELECT FEW. Not everyone can wear masks, according to the Interesting Africa Facts website. Only wise tribesmen can wear masks, or young men during initiation rites, for example. There is no record of women having worn a mask.

Africa is not only a trip to the Savannah but a journey that goes back to our very essence: our deep relationship with nature and the spiritual world. But we now go to Brussels to peer into human history and artistry. So, if you’re in Brussels and you’re in need of something a little bit more thought-provoking in your itinerary, the Belvue is the place to go.

Visit: BELvue Museum | Place des Palais, 7, 1000 Brussels
t +32(0)2 500 45 54
f +32(0)2 502 46 23
 
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Click the image for more information. Header from the BELvue website.

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We are two friends who were former magazine editors. Having moved onto other things, we both realized that the creative flow the publishing world used to offer us was missing from our lives. Armed with a common love of travel to the exotic and familiar, a penchant for the bohemian, an obsession with food and a lust for writing, we decided to collaborate our unique and fashionable journeys through life together in one passion project.

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