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A mask covers the face for several reasons, namely, disguise, protection, and entertainment, ceremonial acts like Halloween, or in case of rituals. Masks have been used from time immemorial with the oldest known one dated back to 7000 BC (“Mask History and Origin”). Most materials used by different cultures across the world were wood and leather, and for that reason, they could not preserve their original appearance to be appreciated by the current society. In Africa, ritual masks were used to communicate with the spirit world in ceremonies and were mostly curved out of wood thanks to great skills and art. Such a mask is seen to resemble specific objects or animals. It serves as a symbol of the intended attribute given to it: for example, a war mask is scaring and ugly with exaggerated facial organs, while the one with closed eyes symbolizes serenity and peace. Therefore, masks were useful objects in the past, serving as a cultural symbol often used in particular significant occasions for people. Although they are treated as objects of art today, this was not the primary purpose for their design by ancient people. Often worn with other related costumes, masks performed ceremonial and religious functions, determining a livelihood of communities. They were worn during events important for people, namely, birth ceremonies, marriages, various rites of passage, and even funerals.
The Baga People
The Baga inhabit the coastal parts of Guinea. Apart from their unique dialect, most of the Baga people speak the regional language, Susu. The tribe is a close relative of the Landuma and the Nalu, both of which are found in Guinea. They share the same linguistic origin with the Temne of Sierra Leone. The Baga are believed to come from inland Guinea after being moved by their aggressive neighbors. The Baga primarily designed their art objects for various ceremonies, including funerals, initiations, and rites of passages, as well as harvest celebrations among many others. Arts derived from this small community of West Africa have been monumental and have attracted many scholars of artistic work.
In the culture of the Baga, the use of masks was an obvious observation. It is evident from the collection of a variety of Baga masks. Nimba is a maskworn to represent the goddess of these people. It is traditionally associated with fertility and procreation amongst the Baga community. Since they mostly live in the marshy areas of the coast, women play the role of farmers in the community. They cultivated rise, although it was very hard due to the conditions of the place. For that reason, the goddess was symbolized by a mask, and it assured the fertility of the land. According to the nineteenth century researches, the Nimba mask was moved around cultivated rice paddies in the Baga community. Similarly, it symbolized fertility of women. The mask was used to invoke infertile women. Considering its design, it is seen to imitate a female figure with long and flat breasts, represented as the ones dangling in the art. Flat pendulous breasts are a symbol of a fertile mature woman. She has given birth to many children and is also portrayed to have natured the latter up to their adulthood. The Nimba mask was worn by a dancer during ceremonies. It is notably of a huge size as compared to most African masks. The mask has about eight feet from the ground being a massive mask for the dancer. The members of the dominant secret society known as the Simo wore the mask as well.
Another phenomenal mask of the Baga is Banda. The Simo secret society used very large masks of more than five feet. They were used in fertility rituals by this society, played a part during a dry season, after gathering the harvest, and at funerals. The Banda mask portrays a character of both humans and animals complexly. It has a long headdress with a human face containing scarification marks but with the jaws of a crocodile. The teeth are protruded from the side of the mask. Horns of an antelope are mounted at the top of the headdress, and the body resembles a serpent with a chameleon’s tail (“Heilbrunn Timeline of Art and History”).
Another mask noticed to be used by the Baga is the Anock mask, which represents bird heads. It is used in harvest ceremonies or during funeral rituals. The mask head is hollowed out and has a tab with small horns filled with a magical substance (“ Stele Headdress Bansonyi Masks”).
Purpose of Masks in the Baga Culture
Almost 60,000 Baga people are found along the southern coast of Guinea (“Tribal African Art: Baga”). Before the advent of Islam in the West African country of Guinea, the Baga people had a wealthy tradition. They possessed a variety of masks and statutes, each for different socio-cultural uses. In the late nineteenth century, after Guinea was taken over by France, it saw the erosion of the culture because of the effect of Roman Catholicism. Later after gaining independence, the government worsened the already deteriorating cultural situation of the Baga people. The Islamic state confiscated Baga icons and illegalized non-Muslim practices in the country. However, nowadays artists of Baga are still famous for their rich masks and statues, for example, Basonyi masks with a serpent headdress that personifies the snake spirit named Mantsho-na-tsol.
There were many functions carried out by a variety of masks of the Baga community. They were used both for the ceremonial and ritual purposes. Owing to the wild environment of this people, frequent visits by beasts were inevitable. Using scary masks, they managed to drive them away. They also believed that masks could scare evil spirits. The location of the ones between the forest and the village was a sign of protection. It was also meant to scare away the spirits of infertility from their paddy fields.