A traditional African mask is the essential feature of Sub-Saharan and West African culture. Africans use these masks during different ceremonies and rituals, and they have both religious and spiritual meaning. The masks designers are very honorable people because the process of creating a new mask requires much time and a person who makes a mask must be familiar with the spirits. Craftsmen usually use wood as the main material, but the mask can be also made of light stone or some metals such as bronze or copper. When a craftsman has shaped the mask, he paints it with various natural colors. However, some masks are not painted but decorated with animal hair, seashells, straws, horns, eggshells, teeth, bones, or feathers. The craftsman may use animal hair to make the hair or beard of the mask (Alabi, Olalere, & Sola 217). African masks are worn in various ways. All masks can be divided into several categories: face masks that cover only the face of a person, hat masks that are worn on the head, and helmet masks that cover the head and the face. However, the variety of the African masks is not limited by this list; some masks are worn on the chest and still are considered the masks, but not the ornaments.
Among the African masks, the Punu masks are one of the brightest examples of the African culture. The Punu people live on the left bank of the Upper Ngoume River. In the 18th century, they migrated northwards and settled there together with the Lumbo, the Galoa, the Eshira, and the Vungu tribes and stayed there until the present days. The tribe is divided into independent villages with its clans and families. Each village has its own specifics, but still, they obey the same rituals and use similar masks for them. Moukoudji is the supreme organ that regulates the obeying of rules in the tribe; it also controls different cults including human relics and masks.
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The Punus use their masks for establishing a connection with gods and spirits; they believe that only shamans have the power and right to communicate with the spirits and gods. As a rule, the Punu masks represent the female ancestor’s faces. The mask is painted in white color that symbolizes peace, spirits of the dead, deities, and the life after death. Moreover, this color is widespread in the funerals and memorials. Even though the masks are worn mainly during the funeral ceremonies, they are also used in the magical rites. However, masks are not only white; sometimes black masks with high-dominated foreheads, red lips, blue eyes, and bushy hair are also used. These characteristics represent the realistic features of the Punu women; thus, the tribe uses exactly these colors and specifics.
The Punu mask is recognized by the diamond-shape scarification features on the temples and forehead. As it was mentioned before, the Punu masks are divided into those that are covered with white color and those which are black. However, there is one more significant difference between them. Both black and white masks have the same stylistic design, but black masks perform the judiciary function, and they are used for identifying the sorcerers.
Masks are traditionally used for important ceremonies; they have cultural importance for the Punu people. They believe that spirits communicate with a person who wears a mask. In this way, a tribe may ask for a sign from the ancestors when they need it. Moreover, the masks are the pride of a tribe or family because they demonstrate the history of the family; thus, it is a big honor to have permission to wear such a mask.
As it was mentioned above, masks are the part of ceremonies and rituals that are often accompanied by dance. However, not all rituals and ceremonies require masks; the following list illustrates examples of the dance rituals that require wearing the Punu masks:
– Ancestor cults. The rituals are performed for memorizing the ancestors or asking for their help in difficult times.
– Fertility rites. These rituals are performed regularly, usually at the beginning of the summer or during the most drought seasons.
– Rites of passage. These rituals are performed for people who pass the rite of initiation; as a rule it refers to boys who have to become adult men.
– Agricultural festivals. At the end of the season, a tribe organizes the agricultural festival so as to please and thank the spirits and gods for a good harvest. In this way, people demonstrate their appreciation and ask for the same good harvest in the future. As a rule, it is a big holiday for any African tribe as people strongly depend on the harvest, and the life of the tribe is impossible without it.
– Initiations, including secret societies. The African tribes, just as the western nations, have specific secret societies that are closed to the majority of the tribe. If one wants to become a member of such a society, before a person is allowed to pass the secret initiation, he should prove that he is good enough for it.
– Rituals for increase (money, property, children, and others). These rituals are usually performed when a tribe experiences different difficulties or shortages; it may be illnesses, lack of money, or fruitlessness.
– Related Ceremonies. These rituals are performed for establishing connections with relatives and friends.
All these rituals and ceremonies presuppose the usage of masks as an essential attribute of their performance. The Punu masks can tell much about the African world and those people who have used them for many centuries until the present days. First of all, they demonstrate the culture and traditions of the African nation and people’s attitudes to them. Indeed all the nations in the world have old traditions that may look a bit strange or even barbaric today. Rituals used to be an essential part of ancient times; in such a way, the druids gathered together to perform their secret rituals, and Vikings drank the blood of their enemies to receive their strength. However, in the modern world, all these rituals became outdated, and people forgot about them. Nowadays, nations have only few traditions that date back to the past and, as a rule, they have also experienced dramatic changes. Nevertheless, the Africans have managed to save the pieces of their culture until the present days; they have strictly performed their rituals according to all ancient cannons. Therefore, when one talks about the Punu masks, he or she should remember that masks are not just a piece of art, but a reflection of the ancient traditions.
The Punu masks are allowed to be worn only by a shaman or a much-respected person; it is an honor if a person receives a permission to wear a mask. According to this fact, it can be said that masks are the items of the hierarchy structure of the African people. Common tribe members cannot wear masks; only those who hold senior positions or a shaman are allowed to do this. Therefore, the social order is strictly obeyed, and masks participate in this process as an important part of the African culture. According to this fact, it is sound to note that the hierarchy system in the African society is represented by the social class division (Palmeirim 75). This system is very similar to those that existed in the medieval Europe when the society was divided into three classes: the upper class, which was represented by kings and other powerful people, the middle class, to which belonged the knights and the priesthood, and the low class or the ordinary peasants. In the case of the African culture, the priesthood is represented by shamans with masks, rituals, and ceremonies. However, shamans in African society have more power and they can influence the ruler’s decisions. The belief in the supernatural spirits is very strong; thus, shamans have even higher position in the African society.
Modern scholars, as well as the collectors, have a great interest in the Punu masks. They consider them not only a priceless piece of art but also a legacy of the past. The mask may give much information about the tribe, but only for those people who can read it. The mask, as it was said above, is a unique reflection of the family. The mask contains information about its owner, as well as the traditions and history of the family. The ancestor spirit masks provide information on the genealogical tree of the family. The scholars have an opportunity to retrace the ancestors of a particular tribe and identify the peculiarities of their way of life.
Every mask is unique because it reflects certain specifics, and scholars use them to differentiate the tribes, their legacy, and history. For example, some tribes use only helmet masks for ceremonies while others wear the hat masks solely for the agriculture festivals. Therefore, the mask contains more information about the tribe than one can even imagine.
However, scholars are not the only ones who have a great interest in the Punu masks. For sure, in the collection of a famous collector of the antique relics, one can find the Punu masks. The collectors, as well as the scholars, admire the ornaments and styles of the masks and the symbolism they contain.
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Despite the unicity and historical value of the Punu masks, one should note that the masks are not the feature of the Punu culture only. The masks were used almost by every nation; moreover, some civilized nations still use masks today, but often for festivals or carnivals. The similar masks or relatively similar masks were used in Japanese, Indian, Ethiopian, Maorian, Brazilian, and other cultures all over the world (Cunningham 34). Those masks were also made of various materials but primarily of wood. For example, the Japanese masks initially were used for the theater. These masks reflected the behavior of the character. The evil characters wore masks that portrayed negative human emotions such as anger, hatred, or envy. On the other hand, the good characters wore masks that portrayed positive emotions such as happiness, sincerity, or kindness. The masks were very important for the Japanese theatre because they also helped demonstrate different non-human characters such as spirits, dragons, or other mythological creatures. Therefore, the Japanese masks had primarily the entertainment function. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to mention that the masks were used by the Japanese warriors known as samurais. Japanese samurais wore helmets that consisted of three elements and one of these parts was a mask. In this case, the mask had the protection role because and protected the warrior’s face from the direct headshots. However, besides the protective function, the mask also performed the frightening role. The terrifying grimace on the mask had to frighten the enemies in the battle. Today, one may find these masks in museums, because they are used only as of the exhibit items. The theatre masks, however, still can be viewed during the performances organized for the tourists.
The Brazil masks are not the exhibit items; they are widely used nowadays during the annual carnivals and festivals. Unlike the African and Japanese masks, the specific feature of the Brazil masks is their brightness and splendor. Every year, the craftsmen design new masks that reflect the main theme of the annual festival. The masks are decorated with feathers of different colors in order to be attractive and elegant. As said above, Brazilian masks are used during the carnivals; they perform the entertainment and sensuous functions. The carnivals are accompanied by dances and exotic dresses of those who wear these masks.
According to this fact, it can be said that the Punu masks have analogs all over the world. However, the functions of other masks are different; some of them are used only for the entertainment goal, others are a mean of protection in the battle while some are used for rituals and communication with spirits just as the Punu masks. All masks in different cultures have one common meaning and significance, and it is the demonstration of emotions to a wide audience. The masks in all cultures are used for underlining some emotions or creating new ones. Sometimes masks are used for representing animals, spirits, or different mythological creatures.
The Punu masks reflect the identity of the Punu people: their culture, traditions, and values. These masks are more than the relics of the past; they have special significance for the people of the Punu tribes. Using the masks, the Punu culture has created the system of beliefs that have survived until the present day. The masks perform the role of a bridge between two worlds: the world of the alive and the world of the dead and supernatural.