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A Wild Ethnographic Goose Chase into the African Tribal Face Masks of Morocco

Written by: Olivia Bastin


There is only one Sudanese coffee shop in Edinburgh and so little African art on display in many of the museums. As such, African art did not play a large role in my own physiological framework or anthropological understanding of the world when growing up.  


The interior of Khartoum Cafe in Edinburgh
The interior of Khartoum Cafe in Edinburgh

Fast forward 16 years later, when I was living in Marrakech in Central Morocco, I noticed a particularly curious trend. Many shops selling indigenous crafts had in their possession African tribal masks – the likes of which I had never seen before. Having visited Tangiers and lived in a little rural Moroccan town not influenced by globalization or tourism, these masks were completely new to me. Which begged the question – why Marrakech? Was it due to its proximity to the Saharan desert which is famous for economic trade and the collide of North and Sub-Saharan cultures, perspectives and philosophies? I was determined to investigate.


I continued to find these masks in the coastal fishing town of Essaouira, a famous UNESCO world heritage site known for its gnawau music and hippy crowds. I also found these masks being sold by vendors along the roadside of the Atlas Mountains to tourists passing through. The commercialisation of Berber crafts and art was not as present as it is in Marrakech despite the fact that many Berber communities originally came from and inhabit these very mountains. These masks whether in Marrakech, Essaouira or the Atlas Mountains can aesthetically be divided into three categories (headdresses, face masks and helmet masks), yet I noticed only two types were present. In Marrakech, any headdresses I was told belonged to different unnamed Berber tribes, yet the face masks were all Sub-Saharan in origin. Berber headdresses are worn exclusively by women and are made of a series of elaborate plates and pins where typically silver jewellery adorns the forehead, coupled by large necklaces of amber beads (The Art of Berber Jewellery). The Marrakech shop keepers told me otherworldly narratives instead of what felt factual information about these treasures. I surprisingly found more artistic information on the varying Berber rugs in the Dar Si Said museum of Carpet and Weaving. Here the rugs’ patterns and materials were listed in depth revealing whether they belonged to the Central Atlas  Western Atlas, Northern Atlas or Eastern Atlas style of design (Types of Moroccan Tribal Rugs-All you Need to Know and Why They Are a Perfect Choice). The rich symbolic and socio-linguistic clues were easily explained to visitors in both Arabic, English and French. Yet from an art-history perspective, the information concerning the Berber headdresses felt more ethereal and less concrete than the course rugs I could run my hands over.  


In Marrakech, Essaouira and the Atlas Mountains, I noticed none of the Sub-Saharan masks where labelled with any ethnographic information as to which African nation they were typical of or indeed of which social groups had made them. There was no information as to how long each mask took to produce, which paints might have been the hardest to procure or the backgrounds of the artists who made them. Some vendors  told me the Sub-Saharan masks came from Sierra Leone, Niger, The Gambia, Cameroon and the DRC. Curiously despite similar aesthetic features all these masks originated from both Western and Central Africa.  



Image of the amber necklaces in Marrakech
Image of the amber necklaces in Marrakech

Yet what struck as ethnographically significant was the lack of interest of which ethnic group had created these striking face masks.  Almost as if it were irrelevant. An observation I made was that it seemed as if these Sub-Saharan African tribal masks were “other”  which is a strong concept in anthropology known as “alterity”. Yet I found this psychological belief system transposed into the world of art and design. Given the French and Spanish influences within Morocco, I found it bizarre that artistically there would be such a cultural divide within the same continent- our art versus this art.  European styled coffee shops and art galleries existed without any social stigmatisation in the Gueliz district of Marrakech and similarly in the Old Medina of Tangiers. Why were these sub-Saharan African masks seen as being so separate to mainstream life and cultural artistic identity within Marrakech Essaouira and the Atlas Mountains? Why did I only find one gallery showcasing these masks and other paintings and mixed media art work created by various Sub-Saharan African artists?


Maybe because the Sub- Saharan African masks had different artistic and visual features, it seemed separate to indigenous Berber relics or Islamic art. And due to its otherness it was something to be stuck on a wall, ogled at and sold for financial gain as opposed to researched and revered. These masks were sometimes laid out beside Berber hair products as I’d they were trivial or exotic and had no true artistic value or merit. As if they were objects not pieces of art that revealed a thousand secrets of  a rich, complex and unique culture and people when gazing into those sad eyes. Sociologically it seemed that the shop keepers delighted showing off the different Berber headdresses with a warm bubbly enthusiasm which ran out when asked about their Sub-Saharan counterparts.  


Maybe it was a question of geopolitics and possessing the right linguistic vocabulary. Multiple different African social groups create face masks such as the Bambara of Mali, the Yorubo and Ebo of Nigeria, the Temne and Gola of Sierra Leone, the Senufo and Grebo of the Ivory Coast, the Dan of Liberia, the Kota of Gabon, and the Bwa and Mossi of Burkina Faso (Tribal Art- African Masks.)  These are the tip of the iceberg. Many of these aforementioned social groups believe energies or spirits are entombed into the wood and therefore the mask due to animistic belief systems. Yet the question of gender, age and social classification for the artists who have created such work was never mentioned. Was there a bias towards one particular gender artistically recording their social groups oral history and cultural footprint. Many of the above tribes also used this form of artistic expression to physically preserve their forebears and remember their achievements and role in their community. Were these masks therefore kept in sacred spaces to honour their ancestors and still feel connected to them after death? How were these masks transported across jungles and deserts to reach Marrakesh? Because of the lack of information, a genealogical approach to  artistically studying these masks is out of the question if their origins are unclear. We cannot record how the artistic designs and features developed over time meaning we cannot chart artistic movements or the expansion of techniques or materials through that specific social group’s historical timeline.  


This lack of ethnographic and artistic clarity negatively affects Sub-Saharan African historical records muddying specific social groups unique history and heritage.  It blurs different peoples together creating an artistic and anthropological impression of universality to a plethora of different cultures. It further erodes a complex understanding of the geological landscape that Sub-Saharan African covers implying that all the masks are made from the same type of materials which can be sourced throughout the African continent despite dramatic geographical and meteorological differences. Paints and colour palettes vary if one is creating a mask in the tropical jungles of the Congo in comparison to the dry grasslands of Northern South Africa. Many of the masks I saw had blue, black, white or red paint around the eyes and mouth. This reminded of a theory in visual anthropology where we discussed how some cultures had a different number of colours wound into their conscious understanding of the  world and their place in it. Each social group had at least three colours which were typically red (representing blood) white (alluding to breast milk or semen) and black (implying feacal matter). Or could these colours present in the masks represent an emotional response to specific rituals or practices engrained into the cultural fabrication of that specific social group. Could the red signify anger or lust? Could the blue hint at tears? Would this describe a historical or cultural event in the community that the artist wanted to record for future generations? Or could these colours point to specific geological structures like a tributary that was integral to the social group’s physical survival or created trade and commerce with other social groups within the area linking different communities together. These colours could reflect the coming together of different worlds artistically and anthropologically. But because theses masks can be mass produced in multiple different countries, these historical records and cultural understanding becomes distorted and warped losing authenticity and artistic and historical accuracy. When buying one of these masks it was customary to barter further eroding any artistic skill or information.  


Image of the Sub-Saharan African face masks in Essaouira
Image of the Sub-Saharan African face masks in Essaouira

In conclusion, I found the Arabic art I was exposed to in Marrakech and Morocco in general to be respected and revered when it came to the interiors and exterior carvings of the mosques. I felt that the indigenous Berber art was valued but especially in connection to monetory purposes but still appreciated and preserved within official artistic and historical spaces. Any European styled art seemed to belong in formal artistic spaces and was sociologically seen as being classy and important. However anthropologically , the Sub- Saharan African masks appeared to lack relevance and significance, predominantly being side-lined to the interiors of shops or laid out in the sun to grab the attention of tourists passing by. Aside from the lack of specific ethnographic information concerning which Berber group wore which headdresses, this dismissal towards something other, separate and distinct was a recurring theme when asking the shop keepers of Marrakech all about their beautiful Sub- Saharan African face masks collection.  

 


 

Reference List:


(2023). The Art of Berber Jewellery: Silver and Stones. Little Moroccan Things. Available at: https://www.littlemoroccanthings.com/berber-jewelry/ 


(2023). Types of Moroccan Tribal Rugs-All you Need to Know and Why They Are a Perfect Choice. Authentic Moroccan. Available at. https://www.authenticmoroccan.co.uk/blogs/stories/types-of-moroccan-tribal-rugs-all-you-need-to-know-and-why-they-are-a-perfect-choice 


(2020).Tribal Art- African Masks. Gallery Preira, African Tribal Art.  Available at: https://www.african-tribal-arts.co.uk/2020/12/05/african-masks/ 

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