Viewing African Art
It is important to remember that African tribal art is vastly different from Western ideas of art. For starters, most African Tribal art has a purpose other than visual enjoyment. Masks are meant to be worn during ceremonies, instruments are meant to be played, and woven baskets are meant to be used to store and serve food. In the Western world, a beautifully painted plate might theoretically be for eating, but most likely its owners will only display it. For this reason, the materials used for the construction of African art: wood, raffia, shells, beads, dried squash, etc. are not only convenient as they are indigenous to the area, but durable as well. When observing African art, it is also important to understand different concepts of beauty. Many African masks, for example, show ideals of feminine beauty that are quite different from Western views. Even the guidelines for creating and assessing the merits of art in Africa differ. The Yoruba tribe of Southwestern Nigeria, for example, believes that a work of art must neither be too beautiful, nor too ugly. At the same time, it may not be too realistic or too abstract. This stands in sharp contrast to ideas of quality art in the Western world, where one would likely not hear an art critic commenting that an artist’s work was simply far too beautiful and realistic.
The International Museum of Art is lucky to have a substantial collection of African masks. Masks are an integral part of most African tribal cultures. They are used in a variety of rituals:
- Initiation rites
- Secret Societies
Just as there are a wide variety of tribes, there are an extremely wide variety of masks. Different masks have different uses. In some instances, masks are used to protect the identity of the wearer, as is the case in many rituals involving secret societies in which the members of the society are not known to the rest of the tribe. In other cases, the mask itself is thought to possess supernatural powers which are unleashed during a ritual, as is true in many rituals designed to promote fertility of the earth or its inhabitants.