Ceremonial Masks: The Connection Between Life And Death

Native cultures have always harboured a strong connection to the spiritual world through rituals, ceremonies, and traditions. The cycle of life and death was not something to mourn or to fear because the dead protected the living and granted them blessings that allowed their existence to thrive with new life.  Masks played an important role in these traditions. They were created to portray ancestors, animals, and mythical heroes in the hopes that the spirit would be pleased and would bless the tribe with protection or good tidings. They were also worn in celebratory circumstances.

Native people created and wore ceremonial masks to connect and communicate with the spirit world, a place that played an important role in their lives. Diverse cultures created different styles of masks based on the type of materials available, or specific beliefs, but they were all created with a common purpose: to celebrate life and death. This online exhibition will examine ten mask styles from parts of the world that are used in various circumstances beginning on the north-west coast of Canada, travelling south to the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea area while finishing on the continent of Africa. The hope is that upon learning about cultures and their ways of doing things, you will see that at the core we are all very similar in our hopes and fears despite our beliefs.

The Haida people of the west coast of Canada created this transformation mask to honour dead by portraying an ancestor or mythical. During winter initiation ceremonies, the story and exploits of these people would be performed through dramatic enactments while wearing the masks. This would ensure that the living Haida people would continue to remember those that passed while welcoming new life into their society through initiation ceremonies.
The Kwakwaka’wakw people of the north-western coast region of Canada created this mask as a representation of the sun because of the blessings it shines down on its people. The sun is viewed as a source of life and without it there would be darkness and death and it takes centre stage in the origin stories of the Kwakwaka’wakw. Imitation is the highest form of flattery and as such the sun masks shine brightest during celebrations as the people honour their creator and sustainer.
This is a Mawa mask that most likely came from the north-western part of the Torres Strait and was created to be worn during a number of ceremonies, rituals and initiations. Although this mask was not worn for a specific event, it was meant to help assist with the practice of maintaining a relationship with the spiritual world. This would then ensure greater blessings for the living members of the tribe.
This is a dance mask that was made by the Western Elema people of Papua New Guinea. It was worn during a cycle of ceremonies that embraced new life while also acknowledging death. They initiated men at the same time as ensuring continual peace with dangerous spirits. This celebration of a new stage of life while paying respect to the spirits of the dead culminated in a beautiful dance with artistic bark cloth and cane and plant fibre masks. These ceremonies would ensure a continual respectful relationship between the living and deceased.
This is a Façade mask that was made and worn by the Chambri people of Papua New Guinea. These were hung on the doors of men’s ceremonial houses to protect the inhabitants of the house from evil spirits. The belief in spirits and the afterlife was a notion that dominated the culture of the Chambri people and their daily lives. In order to keep the living safe, these masks were created in the likeness of ancestors of the family that had already passed, thereby protecting the household from darkness.
This is a Banda mask from the Nalu or Baga culture in Papua New Guinea. This human-shaped mask with crocodile, antelope and chameleon features was used primarily by the men’s society for use during fertility and initiation ceremonies. The combination of different animals most likely represents different attributes of each type that the tribe found to be worthy. Fertility ceremonies were performed with the hope that new life would be brought into their tribe.
In the Republic of Congo, the Kuba people created these masks to be worn at the initiation ceremonies of boys. The masks were formed to represent a wise older male at these celebrations. This could be symbolic as young boys are becoming men and starting their lives while they are being watched over by elders who are now reaching the end of their lives.
The Bobo people, of Burkina Faso West Africa, performed many initiations, funerals, and annual harvest ceremonies. Men would wear this Kuma mask because it was a hybrid of a hornbill bird and the horn of the buffalo (symbolizing wisdom and danger), which would aid the men performing these ceremonies. This is another example of ceremonies that celebrate both life and death and the cycle of seasons while donning a mask of significance to a culture.
The Ndeemba mask of the Yaka culture (Republic of the Congo) is one that is used specifically for initiation ceremonies. They take place during a celebration of young men who, after being circumsized, hold the masks and are now considered men thus, completing a part of the life cycle.
In the Bachon region (Angola) the Chokwe men dance with these masks on that represent female ancestors in order to grant greater fertility within the tribe. By invoking blessings to female ancestors in a celebratory manner, the dancers hope that these past spirits will be pleased by their spectacle and will bless the females with new lives.
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