The Mask of the Monkey

Masks play an important role in ritual in many parts of Africa – mask-making is a valued art, and artists are held in high esteem.   The art has been passed down from father to son for many generations.  Used in ceremonial dances for weddings, funerals and initiation rites, the subjects portrayed by masks are symbolic and many invoke protection for an individual or a group.  As a connection with the spirit world, the mask-wearer is thought to “become” the spirit of the image portrayed and thus have the ability to communicate with spirits, many of which are animals.  Many masks depict monkeys – heads or full-figures.  Most are made of wood, jute or other fiber, and often painted.  Monkey masks have been part of rituals for peoples such as the Baule of Ivory Coast, West Africa, the Hemba Peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Bamana and Dogon of Mali, West Africa.  Museums worldwide exhibit masks depicting monkeys.  Two examples from the Metropolitan Museum in New York are noteworthy.  One is a wooden, full-figure by the Dogon, dated 19th to 20th century, 33 inches high and displayed in Gallery 350 (on-line see accession number 1978.412.364).  The other is a ,head of a monkey by the Hemba, dated also to 19th to 20th century, made of wood and pigment, about 8 inches high, but not displayed (accession number 1988.412).


See also:  Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa, M. L. Felix, 2018.

                  African Masks: From the Barbier-Mueller Collection, Geneva, I. Hahner-Herzog, 2007.

The Use of Masks in Igbo Theatre in Nigeria, V. Ukaegbu, 2008.