African art is as complex as the continent and the many countries, tribes and people that comprise the continent. While its art and culture are often lumped into one category by Western critics, African art is distinct and diverse from each other. Through the analysis of a piece of art from one specific people this diversity will be examined and analyzed. The Dugn’be mask is one that was created by the Bidjogo people. The mask was created to serve a purpose and held significance for the Bidjogo people. The mask also provides insight into the Bidjogo people themselves.
The unique and diverse nature of African art is exemplified through the meaning behind the various pieces of art. African art has at times not been considered modern especially in comparison to more modern pieces of Western art. “African art is not primitive in any sense, particularly nor in the sense of being crude. It does not represent an early and feeble attempt to make realistic art. Nor is it an older or ancestral version of Western art, lagging behind on the evolutionary scale.” (Vogel, 1981). African art’s distinctness from Western art demonstrates the diversity between the cultures. The art of the Bidjogo people may be seen as primitive however the purpose behind the Dugn’be mask provides evidence against this notion. To understand the meaning behind the art it would be important to first understand the people who created the mask.
The Bidjogo people reside in the Bissagos Islands, an archipelago (that became known as Guinea-Bissau in our modern day times) off the coast of Africa. The Bidjogo were known for their extravagant masquerades where they wore exquisite costumes and masks to celebrate various occasions and festivals. These costumes would be used to capture “…the concentration of wild energy captured during performances.” (U of I). The Bidjogo would create elaborate headdresses to accompany their costumes in these celebrations. These headdresses would be made of various animals, such as bulls, hippopotamus or sharks, to represent various gods or spirits. The Bidjogo would take great care to create the costumes as the celebrations were artistic expressions important to their culture. The Dugn’be mask in particular was created with great care as the meaning and purpose of the mask demonstrates the importance of the mask in the Bidjobo ceremonies.
The Dugn’be mask is a bull mask that would fit like a helmet on the performer who would wear it in the ceremony. The mask would portray an oxen or a bull. The Dugn’be mask can be created in various ways however traditionally the mask has real horns of a bull, pieces of obsidian or other stone and is painted with bold colors such as red and blue. The mask would be accompanied with a specific costume. “Dancers wear this highly naturalistic mask over their heads along with a cylindrical “neck” (carved separately) that is attached by rope and rests on their shoulders. The full costume commonly includes a fiber skirt, belts, bells, and arm guards.” (U of I). The mask and costume were created with great care as they represented more than just a piece of art.
The mask is carved by hand by the young male men who are a part of the ritual that it is used within. The individual carving of the mask is important as it provides insight to the Bidjogo culture. “Unlike most cultures, which have recognized sculptors who supply community with ritual art, Bidjogo families often carve their own masks and statues. This allows an individualized art to emerge that only loosely follows any stylized norms” (Lifshitz, 2009). Each mask therefore could represent the individual and family who created it. The distinctness of the masks could allow individuals to identify the families the mask came from. The masks would represent not only the Bidjogo culture but also the families to which they belong and have to uphold during the ritual.
The mask not only demonstrates the significance for specific families but also provides historical perspective for the Bidjobo people. The use of the ox mask occurred as a result of the introduction of cattle to Guinea Bissau by the Portugese in the late 1400’s. The cattle began to be used as property by the Bidjobo people and by other warring tribes in the region. The cattle was fought over by these tribes and a large amount of cattle indicated prominence for the tribes or for specific families. Various wars coupled with the increasing slave trade created difficulties for the Bidjobo people. While the Bidjobo people were using cattle as a means of warfare, their own people were being treated as cattle by the slave trade as well. “A historical relationship exists between cattle and slavery...because slaves were purchased or ransomed in the region using cattle as currency.” (Masquerades, 2012). Eventual colonization by France led to the decline of the Bidjobo people and in turn a loss of the art that created their extravagant masks and costumes.
The Dugn’be mask represented more than just the prominence of the ox and cattle for the Bidjobo people. The mask was utilized in the manratche, which was an initiation ritual of adolescent boys out of adolescence and into manhood. The ox was used in these rituals to portray the aggressive and wild nature of adolescence. The ritual would attempt to literally tame the wild nature of the boys during the ceremony. “The masks are used in an age-hierarchy initiation ceremony known as “manratche,” when young men in the mid-level “cabaro” age group celebrate their post-adolescence by donning these masks and imitating the wild, aggressive behavior of an ox” (Home Past Auctions). The ritual was most often used as a celebration of a boy becoming a man. However the large mortality rate of boys in the Bidjobo culture meant that often girls would be allowed to engage in the ritual to celebrate their emergence from adolescence.
During this ritual the performers would dance around as an attempt to tame the wild nature of the adolescents so that they would be able to become the men they needed to become. “In performance, male attendants hold a single rope strung through the nose of the mask to tame its beastly spirit.” (U of I). Once the beast is tamed the young adolescent can emerge into adulthood ready to take on the responsibilities of the family now and into the afterlife as an ancestor. Despite the amount of care and effort that is placed into creating the masks for the ritual once the beast is tamed the mask is discarded by the performers of the ritual. This would indicate that while the ritual itself is important the mask does not hold as much value for the Bidjobo once it has served its purpose. What is now considered art by the modern community was once just considered a tool to be used to help an adolescent enter into adulthood and nothing more.
Despite the ease with which the mask was discarded after a ceremony the mask and the ritual that it was a part of held a significant meaning for the Bidjobo people. The ritual of manratche was not merely a stepping point into manhood but also held significant importance into the afterlife for the individual and the family they were representing. The ceremony initiated the adolescents into manhood but also allowed them to be able to become ancestors in the afterlife. “Initiation masks are crucial to the life-long goal of achieving the status of ancestor because the uninitiated are prohibited from creating objects of religious worship used for entering Ancaredo, an afterworld where the deceased becomes one with the Creator” (U of I). Without the ceremony individuals in the Bidjobo tribe believed that they would never reach fulfillment in the afterlife for themselves and their family. This creates a strong emphasis within the Bidjobo culture to not only participate in the ceremony but also be successful within the ritual.
The spiritual nature of the ceremony provides insight into the Bidjobo people as a whole. The ritual demonstrates that the Bidjobo people were religious in some form as they not only believed in a higher power but also believed that a ritual would bring them closer to their higher power. The ritual was not unlike baptism in the Catholic religion that is currently performed by many modern day religions. The ritual is also similar to many coming of age ceremonies, such as Bar Mitzvahs in the Jewish religion, which many cultures have to celebrate the emergency into adulthood from manhood. Allowing young girls to participate in the manratche ritual indicates that the tribe was not as patriarchal as other tribes of the region or during that time period. The use of the ox also provided insight into the importance of cattle for the Bidjobo people. Finally the ritual itself provides insight into how the Bidjobo people celebrated their customs and traditions. The use of extravagant costumes and masks demonstrates that the Bidjobo people were a lively, exuberant tribe who enjoyed celebrations and becoming a part of a community through their rituals.
Art can provide insight into a culture’s values, history and traditions. Our modern day art may provide insight into our culture that the masks of the Bidjobo people now provide to us. The Dugn’be mask demonstrated this aspect of the Bidjobo culture. Various other masks of the Bidjobo people provide additional insight into their culture. The art of the Bidjobo people also demonstrated their diversity from the other tribes of the region. As Africa was colonized and the traditional tribes began to decline so did their art and culture. The discovery of the masks used by the Bidjobo people are a valuable find as they are able to provide historical understanding for a culture.
Home Past Auctions. The Max Garb Collection of African and Ethnographic Arts. 2013.
Lifshitz, Fima. An African Journey Through Its Art. AuthorHouse, 2009.
Masquerades, Bush. "Masquerade Prototypes in West Africa." The Jumbies’Playing Ground: Old World Influences on Afro-Creole Masquerades in the Eastern Caribbean (2012): 145.
University of Iowa Museum. Ox Head Helmet Mask. Collections. Visonà, Monica Blackmun, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, and Michael D. Harris. A history of art in Africa. Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008.
Vogel, Susan M., ed. For spirits and kings: African art from the Paul and Ruth TishmanCollection. 1981.