It is acknowledged that the art of mask has an aesthetic quality that glorifies the ugliness. History records that though the mask was associated with prestige that served as an entertainment tool, others associated it with the personification of a spirit; that is supernatural creatures. According to history, masks regulate individual existence of certain groups of people. For example, some people relate mask to witchcraft but it has played a significant role in the development of African Art before the postcolonial era. The mask provides a wide range of thematic issues such as political, religious and economic specialization amongst the tribes. This was more evident especially in Central and North Africa.
One will realize that the mask provides an audience with an interesting perspective on the complementary nature of African art as well as social and cultural identity. Art in African context has been part of people’s lives that was manifested in every aspect of working, playing and believing which was depicted in the form of masks. It is important that the knowledge of making African masks, even if not formally expressed, plays a vital part in appreciation of works of art. To appreciate the art of masks will enable one to know the social background of and the certain ideas of that ethnic group. Emotions, impressions and thoughts were expressed by Africans when making masks. It is also known that the art of masks has an immediate impact on the observer whatever it depicts. It conveys to the mind the greatest number of ideas which will build up the audience’s own interpretation.
Some argue that the stylization of African masks make it difficult to understand the meaning unless one is related to the tribe. But one has to know that masks may perform multiple functions that change the meaning according to the situation; it may entertain, frighten or promote fertility. It may also symbolize power, especially to the chiefs. Others take it that the masks could also be made for other purposes such as to please or to teach.
The making of masks that depict the bared teeth, blown- out cheeks, overhanging brows all transform the human being into a supernatural one, as well as its distorted features. The mask is said to represent humans because of its association with their beliefs. It can combine both features of human and animal. Mr Morris Foit, who was on residency at Thapong Visual Arts Centre in Gaborone, Botswana, in 2004 made a mask which was a wooden head combining both animal and human features. It depicts a human face surmounted by goat’s horn, which symbolizes goat’s head. A similar type of mask was made by Mr Foit.
Examining the mask, sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between male and female by merely looking at the features. However, one could witness and feel some sense of belonging from Mr Foit’s work. There is the message behind his religion. One would say the mask depicts his identity.
The difference in styles, functions and origins of the masks depend on the location. Most of the masks were made to be used in special ceremonies such initiation, praying for rain and witchcraft. Some of the masks were used to enforce law and order. It was also used to intimidate women and children. The other artist who works with masks is Mr Joseph Piet, a full-time artist from Thapong. He produces masks from metal. His work is different because he uses cut pieces of metal and joins them. Mr Piet’s masks are full of expression with long faces that are made to attract an audience. According to him, masks entertain people. To him it does not have anything to do with the belief whatsoever but it is open to interpretation.