Who hides behind the mask?


Last week, Professor John Picton, Emeritus Professor of African Art at the University of London’s School of African Studies, spoke about West African masks. The talk held place in the recently renovated and renewed Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Professor Picton says that it is important to understand that the relationship between a mask, the person wearing it and the mask-in-performance, is neither simple, nor straight-forward. This asseveration is very interesting in relation to Trispectivism, recognizing the three perspectives interacting in one performance. Picton also elaborated on aspects of power, performance, disguise, secrecy, colour and imagery in specific masks from Nigeria.

Map-YorubaThe renowned expert explained about the mysterious subject of masking and masquerade in Nigeria. One of the main mask destinations he discussed was in Nigeria. In the Yoruba tribe there are three types of masks for different ceremonies. The most impressive one is called Epa, which is an incredibly decorated masks with variety of symbols.

As you can see in the photos, there is a large variety of colours and shapes (i.e. the color of white means hard work in the fields but for a Muslim it is purity and closeness to God). Not every detail has a meaning but certainly some forms, shapes and symbols have meanings. This is where the knowledgeable will be able to distinguish between the important and the not important aspects of the mask (i.e. a wheel have no important message but two red colors on the forehead mean a certain deity). So does the chant and the music. A good wearer has to know to distinguish music, words, and steps and of course the symbols of the deity he represents.


The ceremonies which the tribe uses the masks for are known to be a form of a test, where the most famous one is the representation of death (of a person). The spirit is entered into the mask before the ceremony and the wearer of the mask is supposed to embody the spirit or re-embody the dead person. Actually, in some cases, as with the masks of the Ebira, the mask maker incorporates body relics of the death person (possessions and even skin tissue, hair, bones etc).

CofradíasThe secrecy of the wearer is important. The mask wearer cannot appear to your eyes as the neighbor’s son or a relative that you grew up with. In order to keep the mysterious aspect and the holiness belief, it has to be the transcendental divine. The human body (again) becomes a mere vessel. That is the reason why both the spectators and the performer have a belief that a person cannot see the wearer of the mask naked in any other occasions; otherwise, they will fall ill. One cannot see the inside of the mask.

mask dance

mask3The masks are created with images about the authority, army, spirits, kings and other power position essence (in some case even an American or other foreign symbolism). It is believed that the masks dance, sing and tell stories, they make you laugh and sometimes think, they initiate children into adulthood, lead armies to war and celebrate their achievements.

Masks create distance, with no exception, which, in a small community, brings to life some dramatic distance between performer and audience. It is a wonderful interaction in a trispectivist manner where the human agency dissipates into the cause of the ceremony, meaning the metaphysical one. The fact that the wearer actually has the physical strength to dance and jump with those heavy masks in midsummer is also believed to be thanks to magical intervention and medicine with special powers.


The notion of the mask blurs the individual All into an ambivalent, sometimes ambiguous identity, one that is depicted by the universal All yet still represented by an individual. This anthropomorphic deification of a symbol repeats in different cultures and in this one, probably the most intriguing issue is the use of masks. This creates an acute interaction between the spectator in the physical world and the mask as a door for the spirit world to intervene.


Mask from Pitt Rivers museum, Oxford
Mask from Pitt Rivers museum, Oxford





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