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Magical Faces of Africa Red Mask
by Claude Rilly

PARIS - If sculpture is the projection of one's thoughts into three dimensions, then the African continent has produced many of the greatest sculptors of all time, even though no single name has ever been passed down.

With the permanent exhibition, which occupies three floors of the (too) little known Musée Dapper in Paris, we are shown not only the most riveting examples of African art, but also the most disconcerting. Disconcerting because our western minds, despite a century of contemporary art which has been concerned with decompartmentalizing and reconstructing esthetic ideals, always thirst for classifications and categories which are not possible in this context.

The African mask is not an objet d'art in itself, but neither is it a simple cultural or theatrical accessory. At the same time, the sculptor is not an "artist", but his function goes much further than that of a simple craftsman. The majority of the pieces on display radiate a beauty and strength which were admired by Braque, Picasso or Vlaminck, and the sculptors can only be considered as geniuses.

The mask was traditionally used in Africa in the majority of ceremonies: feritility or initiation rites, religious or funeral celebrations, but also theatrical or comic performances often linked to the deepest ethnic myths. The mask confers on the person wearing it - for the duration of the ceremony - the essence and the powers of the spirits or ancestors it symbolizes. Secret societies, almost always composed of adult males, are simultaneously repositories and creators. The wearers of masks, sworn to secrecy, are subject to constraints and taboos which protect them from the dangerous magic powers of these objects.

The bulk of the pieces were assemblages, and those on exhibition as a simple refined face have lost their former decorations of vegetable fibers and dried leaves whose rustling accompanied the disjointed movements of the dance and contributed to the performance. Wood, sometimes set off by nails or shells, is most often utilised for the face, but the oldest mask (12th century?), from the Niger delta, is in terra cotta. Human or animal teeth or hair may sometimes be added.

Round Mask The diversity of forms and composition, the richness of plastic invention, all seem to be one of the major features of the exhibition: the slender and geometric forms for the Dogons of Mali, the soothing sculpture in the round of the white masks of the Punus of Baon, the complex, multi-layered architecture of the Bambaras of Mali, the terrifying, caricatured faces of the Krahns of Liberia, the expressive realism of the Wakonde of Tansania. The immensity of Africa is rivalled only by the inventivity of its artists.

Most of these pieces may be admired after the exhibition closes because the Musée Dapper is also the owner. Moreover, a magnificent catalogue, as is the custom with publications from this source, is available for a modest sum. A deep bow for the efforts of the Dapper Foundation which does so much to make African art known to the rest of the world and to give it back its significant position in man's esthetic heritage.

Musée Dapper - Paris
50, avenue Victor Hugo
75116 Paris
Tel : (1) 45 00 01 50

The Gallery of Masks


Claude Rilly is a professor of classical languages and literature in Paris. He is also an egyptologist and specialist of meroitic language and civilisation. Claude Rilly has contributed on Greek archaeology in GEO (France), and on meroitic phonology in the Göttinger Miszellen (Germany). He is archaeology editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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