Wearing African masks ? The decontextualisation of cultural artefacts

Man Ray (1890-1976) Noire et Blanche, 1926 1926
Ilustration: Man Ray (1890-1976) Noire et Blanche, 1926 1926 – Gelatin silver print – 18 x 23.5 cm © Man Ray Trust / ADAGP – PICTORIGHT / Telimage – 2013

The origins of decontextualisation

The phenomenon of decontextualisation was first encountered in 1789. The French Revolution led to the nationalisation of private collections on a massive scale, not stopping short of the destruction, dismantling and decolonisation of various aspects of European heritage. Museums built at this time were therefore primarily intended for the storage of these artefacts, either in order to display the glory of the nation (as at the Louvre), or to protect them from overzealous destroyers who were opposed to anything that evoked the ‘Ancien Régime’.

What is (de)contextualisation?

Going by what happened during and after the French Revolution, the word ‘contextualisation’ can be defined in the following terms where African objects are concerned: it involves a process whereby a cultural artefact is removed from its original context in order to be placed into a relational framework of a different kind, perhaps even of a different culture. As a result, the artefact plays a part in new meaning networks. This process can affect a single artefact several times.

For example, a number of Dan masks from Sierra Leone, after inspiring Western artists such as Man Ray during the 1930s, were later exhibited in modern art museums in the USA and Europe. Their likeness can also be seen on banknotes from western African countries. Furthermore, the museum need not act as the end of this process, but is instead a stage that can occur more than once.

Situations that lead to the decontextualisation of cultural artefacts come in many forms. Usually, a decontextualised object is one that is appropriated by another culture. The numerous masks and ‘fetishes’ brought from Africa to Europe by explorers starting in the 15th and 16th centuries to be presented as curiosities are clear examples of this. Consequently, so-called ‘ethnographic’ artefacts, brought to Europe and the USA from Africa during exploratory and evangelising missions, are also decontextualised objects. Therefore, wherever these artefacts end up, the object’s context is sometimes evoked, situating it within a discourse.

For example, the chiwara mask of the Bamana people of Mali can be deliberately contextualised when it is exhibited. As the links connecting the artefact to its origins have been broken, this previous existence can be recalled with the help of various props. However, exhibitions are only rarely able to convey an accurate depiction of an artefact’s original setting. In fact, sacred objects play a part in a very specific action within the social relations of their original African context. The aesthetic effect they have on their users does not correspond to the same norms or ‘aesthetic emotions’ as it does for a Western collector.

Chiwara mask of the Bamana people of Mali

Chiwara mask of the Bamana people of Mali

Left Ilustration: Alain Naoum Gallery – antiqueafricanart.com
Right Illustration: Maschera Bamana – Mali – Ciwara catalogato nelle Raccolte Extraeuropee del Castello Sforzesco

Referring to this phenomenon an ‘aesthetic of action’ or ‘aesthetic of performance’, we can cite several examples in order to explain more clearly what is meant by this. In the Dogon (Mali) ritual carried out at the end of the mourning period, the sirige mask is used. This mask not only manifests its physical components—wood, fibre, ochre, etc.—but also evokes a whole range of masks that recall the origin myth (see Germain Dieterien 1989). The most important role of the mask is its action, involving its appearance in the village and its participation in a ritual that usually consists of re-enacting the myth. Thus, certain conditions must be met in order to allow the artefact a kind of autonomy in respect to human society.

Bambara people

Bambara People

Left Ilustration: Alain Naoum Gallery – antiqueafricanart.com

Generally, therefore, the artist who creates the artefact is anonymous (as mentioned in another article). It is not his name that is remembered by the public, but rather that of the person who carries out the consecration: the one who gives the object life and the power to act as a spiritual object. In the Baule culture of Côte d’Ivoire, the artist’s name is rarely noted or passed on, and his identity has no place in the religious ceremony: “the Baule formulation attributes visual power to art and objects and none to persons” (Susan Vogel 1997, 68; 1999, 45).

Among the Songye people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the most important person in the creation of the nkisi statue is the one who places the magic substances (bishimba) into the cavity created in the sculpture (in its stomach, its head, or elsewhere).

In the eyes of the people, the nganga is seen as the creator of the object, and the sculptor considered the creator of the ‘inanimate structure’. The most important aspect is the effectiveness of the object during its use by those who commission it (Dunja Hersak 1995, 346–347).

African Masks Decontextualisation

Left Illustration: Nganga mask, from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum
Righ Illustrationt: Nkisi figure, from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum

The anonymity of the artists who create traditional African art has given rise to a scarcity of information, even to misunderstandings. The Luba, Baule and Songye peoples, as well as other African societies, do not attribute a great deal of importance to the person who creates the sculpture, even though there are ways of remembering his name. The aesthetic qualities of the artefacts are predominant, allowing the transmission of the spiritual or ideological values of a given culture or civilisation (M. N. Roberts 1998, 66).

Sometimes, the predominance of the function and effectiveness of the artefact can go so far as to favour the destruction of the container (that is, the mask itself) in order to preserve its contents. Among the Igbo people in Nigeria, “when the product is preserved or venerated, their impulse to repeat the process is compromised” (Clifford 1985, 241, cited in A. Roberts 1994, 41).

This aspect highlights the fact that the notion of the existence of a ‘lifespan’ is attributed to the artefacts.

Editor in chief & Expert

Alain Naoum
African Antique Expert & Dealer

If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me


Coryse Mwape Dolin

Art Historian, African Arts


Dunja Hersak.- Songye. In G. Verswijver et al. (eds), Trésors d’Afrique. Tervuren, Musée Royal de l’Afrique centrale, 1995.
Mary Nooter Roberts.- The naming game : ideologies of Luba artist identity. African Arts 31 (4): 56-73, 90.
Susan Vogel.- Baule. African Art, Western eyes. African Arts 30 (4): 64-77, 95.


Dogs, as clairvoyant power

Dogs, in Kongo culture, are animals to whom clairvoyant powers were attributed.

Their role was to protect the village from the evil spirits.

Our power figure is a sitting dog with its mouth open, watchful, alert, protecting the surrounding area.

Soft brown patina, the body is carved gently, with great artistic skill. Read =>

Fascinating new book on feminine symbolism

02Learn about Phemba in this new book, and take a journey through time, discovering wonderful pieces of art on the way Learn about Phemba & take a journey through time discovering wonderful pieces of art on the way.

Depictions of ‘mother and child’ are commonly found in numerous cultures, reimagined multiple times over the course of history. As well as recalling this universal image, each civilisation uses the ‘mother and child’ to emphasise the specificities of its own history, making a direct connection with the moment of origin as told in its creation myth.

A universal theme, the ‘mother and child’ is a subject that is found as commonly in African cultures as in others (Western, etc.). It can be expressed in different kinds of art (for example, sculpture and painting) and evokes a fundamental feature of humanity.



Picasso took from the Lwalwa masks the crest of the nose, the central element of the face, which, highlighted with balance and elegance, gives rhythm to the overall object. By using rounder lines than those present on the masks, Picasso suggests the softness of female facial features, despite suggesting an imposing appearance. Other elements of the face, the eyes and mouth, are amplified in the same way as on the Lwalwa mask. Picasso appears to be experimenting with the same principles: not deforming the facial features, but harmoniously accentuating them.

Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso’s muse and mistress, is therefore given a fixed and calculated appearance, her extremely sculptural face resembling a mask. Her eyes have an interrogatory quality, like those of a sphinx ready to set a puzzle.

Currently the sculpted portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter can be seen at an exhibition in the Musée national Picasso-Paris : (March 8 – August 28 2016)

Different views of African art over time

The historical context of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries produced the first manifestations of the ideologies that contributed to the creation of colonies on the African continent. The rise of the bourgeoisie within the economic system allowed them to impose their ideas on the development of societal attitudes, principally in regard to the value of the economic market and technological progress, which brought wealth.

The discovery of other continents was therefore motivated by the search for new goods to trade.

The first European expeditions to the African continent were undeniably commercial in nature and go back to the fifteenth century. They took place first to the coasts and enabled the establishment of trading posts. The first maps of Africa, as it was known at the time, date from the end of this century. The Portuguese colonised the western shores of Africa in around 1444. At this time, Dinis Dias, a Portuguese navigator and explorer, reached the Senegal River, during his second journey to Africa.

African artists, anonymous, but recognisable! Is the anonymity of African artists a myth?


African artists are rarely quoted or mentioned. What comes first is essentially the impact of the work of art itself. As the art, usually masks and sculptures, often relates to religion, what is important is the object and its role in ritual.

Our lack of knowledge about the artists can be explained by several factors: from a “local” point of view focusing on its origin, as in the previous paragraph, the object itself is more important than the person who made it, because it has a specific function for its owner; from a “scientific” point of view, seeing African art has not always helped us learn more about its artists, and so, in the words of Susan Vogel, “to contradict the stereotype of an art that emanated almost unconsciously from a collective culture, anonymous and devoid of history – a notion of sub-Saharan Africa that had left outside the history of art to which art museums and art history departments were dedicated” (1998, 44).



According to Pierre Harter, these figures are used in an ancestral ritual. But, in contrast, Viviane Baeke suggests that these sculptures belong to the so medicinal ritual. But according to F. Hermann, the Keaka people could be the only cultural group with this kind of figure, the paternity sculpture.

Field studies made by Hans-Joachim Koloss present the male figures as « power figures », named enoke ateng – « fighting alone ».

What we understand about paternity figures is associated with so association, known in this border region. Laburthe-Tolra suggested that old initiated men became like women, with the ability to give birth. Then, new initiation candidates know a « social birth ». This particularity is symbolized by the child in the back of male figures.

Morphological characteristics of these male standing figures are bent legs and arms, an elongated body, ending with a head, schematically shaped, with a « beard » or a « V » hair style. The face is often carved with a cavity for the mouth and, sometimes, only vertical lines for the teeth. The patina is another important element that gives strength and mystery to these male figures. Looking at all paternity figures, some of them are taller (elongated) than others (stocky).



To begin with a concrete example, found among the Guro people of Ivory Coast, the three gu, zamble and zauli masks are sacred objects, used during sacrifices performed in the home. As a result of the masks’ sacred quality, women and the uninitiated were subject to a formal interdiction that forbade them from seeing the masks when they were not being worn (Fischer 1985, 26).

These two aspects cultural practices and an interdiction based on the object’s visibility are the principal elements of the sacred that affect the objects we are concerned with.
In the same way, blacksmiths’ tools from the Luba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (3) are seen only at royal coronations: at other times, nobody is allowed to look upon these objects, which are kept in a sacred protected area (A. Roberts 1998, 70).

The relationship between people and objects is established in a sacred context, governed by sacrifices and interdictions. The object is a medium invested with powers that allow human beings to communicate with supernatural beings and spirits.
In the Ashanti civilisation in Ghana (4), fertility dolls, akua-ha, are fed by their owners (A. Roberts 1994, 44).

Important Bembe Alunga mask - Janus helmet


This Janus helmet mask is decorated with pigments (kaolin in circular cavities). The head and the eyes are totally stylized with geometrical forms.
The colours generally used for this mask are white, red and black; there is symbolism associated with each colour.

A mighty and powerful piece of art, this mask belongs to the Alunga secret society. Alunga, the bush spirit, is honoured during ceremonies. Male dancers with Alunga masks must be directed by another man, because like the spirit itself, they are blinded. According to Pol P. Gossiaux, the name of the mask is”echwaboka”.

The “echwaboka” masks look like pre-Bembe bifacial polychrome heads representing Alunga spirits (Biebuyck 1981, 152)

They live near Lake Tanganyika, with the Boyo and the Hemba as their neighbours. The history of settlements in this region was studied by Daniel Biebuyck (1981). According to him, the Bembe people had their origins on the shores of the Lualaba River. Hunters migrated in waves from the East, before finally settling near Lake Tanganyi

Stunning, ornate bowl - the work of Olowe of Ise, Yorubaland artist?

This prestigious (precious) bowl originally contained kola nuts, used in a traditional gesture of hospitality, presented to guests and offered to deities during rituals.
Several elements of our sculpture (hairstyle, scarifications…) can be found in the works of Olowe of Ise, but it is not certain proof of his work.


• First, we have the ovoid bowl with its decorative, zoomorphic top (two facing birds), held by two kneeling women with elevated hairstyles.

• Under the bowl, two pairs of caryatid women (two standing and two kneeling, with one holding her breasts).

• And finally, the pedestal is decorated with twelve faces (some of them with beards), and a male head laid down in the middle. The women holding the bowl display scarifications on their chest, neck and back. Caryatids refer to the important role of women in the Yoruba society.


(1) Mbuya Mask, Pende peoples – Mask can be found in Royal Museum for Central Africa or RMCA, Tervuren, Belgium.
(2) Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).- Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 –  Painting  can be found in The Museum of Modern Art or MOMA, New York