Photos: Bruno Zanzottera
“Masks talk. And listen to men and to their eternal thirst for life, their desire to live forever while they know they’re just men. Men in need to dominate their fears and hopes that’s when they transform themselves in masked man”. In the African traditional society the mask plays a crucial role: it represents the appearance of a spirit coming from the forest or the savanna to rule men’s actions, to scare people or entertain them, to impose peace or instigate war, celebrate funerals or initiation rituals. In the whole Africa the word ‘mask’ doesn’t indicate just what’s covering the face of the man but it means incarnate spirit, present spirit. The mask wearer loose his individual identity to transform himself in something else. The mask wearer may die, the mask not: “A man may leave me (die), and he will be replaced. But a mask will never die. You’ll never see a mask’s grave. We’re above men”.
In African’s masks world the magnificient, spectacular side is important but the social aspect is fundamental, defining the mask as the connection between men’s world and the supernatural one a world always present in African society, in every action of every single person. The mask becomes a regulator of what’s happening in the community, something you must fear. For example, in the city of Bobo Dioulasso, in Burkina Faso, there are places where masks make dance performances and are controlled by griots (the musician leading the dance), while in other parts of the town the masks get out of human control and terrify people with whips and sticks. At the same time, the show off and the dance of the masks become a great, collective theather performance, with people chasing and challenging the masks to dispel their fear of the spirits world.