1. Walking Sculptures
With the class, try to solve the mystery of the vertical masks, or walking sculptures. Are they masks? Are they sculptures? Examining them raises many questions, which have been debated by those studying and working in the area. Read from the introduction or tell the students about these entities that appear together, slowly moving forward or sideways, towering high above spectators, coming to bestow blessings for successful harvests or incarnating ancestors who are returning to the world of the living.
Divide students into two groups and give each group a set of the following clues, speculations, and observations collected from scholars in the field. Students can play the role of these investigators, conjecture answers, or perhaps raise more questions. Have each group report their findings and tentative conclusions to the class, including in their reports illustrated representations of the performance, complete with costumes. These creative renderings will, of need, be products of their imaginations since no photographs or detailed field observations exist to explain how the masquerades were performed.
Clues, Speculations, and Observations:
It looks like a mask – a really big mask. But is it? Was it worn? How? Or was it carried? How was it used? How would the wearer see?
1. There are no openings for vision.
2. There’s no real way to fit it on the head.
3. One investigator saw a mask that rested on the wearer’s head so he could look through a small porthole while supporting lower planks with his hand.
4. There is such a narrow space between the planks that the mask was probably carried, not worn.
5. It is carved from one piece of wood and is really heavy, so how can a masquerader balance it on top of his head even while steadying it from below?
6. When it is worn it can rise three feet above the performer’s head. It has a long neck.
7. If it was carried would it take more than one man to carry it?
8. The eyes and ears are placed widely apart, making these features visible from both the front and side.
9. The features are similar to figurative sculptures with exaggerated ears, prominent dance helmets, or crested coiffures.
10. The holes along the bottom and outer edges probably mean that fibers were attached.
11. But bodies of the Wurkun masks were decorated and meant to be seen; not hidden by fiber cloaks as was true of other examples.
12. We’re told that the figures were “danced into town” during rituals that lasted three days.
13. In 1925 a scholar wrote that he saw sixteen in one rite and “they are danced by those who are able.”
2. Vertical Power
Students can consider the differences between vertical and horizontal orientations. The walking sculptures discussed above have a distinct vertical orientation with the head upright unlike the mask forms we will discuss next that are horizontally oriented. Does the orientation affect the impression received by the viewer? Does perception of a stationary figure standing erect differ from that of a seated or recumbent figure (more horizontal)? Which, in students’ minds, might denote more power or status?
3. Horizontal Composite Masks
The class can combine original depictions of a mask as they draw their own versions of creatures and/or spirit beings. Horizontal masquerades, primarily in the shape and orientation of an animal, have elongated heads with more horizontal postures as compared to that of humans. Typically the heads are divided into three parts: an extended mouth or snout (sometimes full of dangerous-looking teeth) projecting forward, a cranium (the helmet that receives the dancer’s head), and for the final third, pointed shapes that extend back (often upward) from the head and are usually horns or representations of horns.
As students interpret the above three mask components, they will work with classmates to combine and recombine them into new creatures. Each student should be given 2 ½ index cards (two 4" x 6" cards and one cut in half for a 4" x 3" piece) that they will place as in the following drawing, labeling them in pencil as shown (including the dotted guide lines one inch from top and bottom).
On the center card they’ll draw the head of a creature, facing right, being sure to have the drawings end at the marks on the sides of the card. On the “front” card they will draw the mouth, snout or whatever front projection they choose and likewise on the back they will draw the rearward projection, possibly with horns or other devices. As with the center card, the front and rear end drawings should end at the 1” marks on the cards. Combined, the three cards will depict their version of a horizontal mask and since all parts connect at the inch mark, the cards are interchangeable and students can configure and reconfigure their creature heads at will.
4. Animal Fusion Masks
Consider the animals depicted on composite horizontal masks and on ones of the students’ making. According to scholar Patrick McNaughton in his African Arts article of 1991 “People, snakes, antelopes, buffaloes, chameleons, elephants, hippopotami, crocodiles, hyenas, and birds have been identified as models for mask elements….But generally these elements are combined so that the finished sculpture portrays no single creature, and often the resulting composite image appears to be important because that is a visual means to a conceptual end” (1991, 47).
Masks usually reference familiar animals. Students can research the natural environment of the Middle Benue Valley to learn of the animals that live there. Or they can concentrate on the animals with which the students share their environment. If they were to design a mask of these animals (from the Benue River Valley or their home), what would the mask look like? They should draw or make a mask combining human elements with characteristics of this animal.
In so doing, consider that the mask is able to assume the qualities of the animals such as the speed of an antelope, the ferocity of a bushcow, the power of a bull. Students should be able to tell of the qualities they are trying to capture in their masks.
Students can learn of an animal common to this region of study. The horns of the masks in figures 7.7 and 7.8 represent the dwarf forest bushcow, one of three subspecies of buffalo (Syncerus caffer). The buffalo is culturally significant in many parts of Africa and often associated with leadership due to the its extraordinary strength and aggression when provoked. Middle Benue scholar Richard Fardon (as cited in Petridis 2008, 28-29) identifies the dwarf forest bushcow (Syncerus caffer nanus)as the source of inspiration for the horns of Chamba helmet masks (fig.7.9). More social and more sedentary than the savanna buffalo and Cape buffalo, the dwarf forest bushcow live together in small groups of females with their young. Thus, for the Chamba peoples this animal offers an image of protective motherhood.
Students will note the large horns depicted on these masks. How would they describe them? (They’re directed backwards, curve upwards and into the center, almost forming a circle.) What are other ways to depict horns (or antlers which are not true horns)? (In this region tall and upswept horns are waterbuck or reedbuck references (fig. 7.10). Horns can be parallel from the head, curve upward or downward, be many-branched (fig. 7.11), look like handlebars, curve in a spiral, or be small bumps on the head. Students’ designs can be totally original and abstract in appearance.)
6. Horn Power
Whatever the appearance of horns, incorporating them in a mask adds to the perception of power. Have students add that perception to an object within their lives. They might be inspired as they see examples of “powered” skateboards in the home of San Francisco architect Mason St. Peter. On each skateboard he attached a pair of antlers and displayed the group on his porch. Featured in the September 2010 issue of Sunset Magazine, you can find an image of the front porch here: http://www.happymundane.com/2010/08/antler-skateboards/