Vol. 17, No. 35July 9, 1998

Rituals uncovered
 African women's masking customs documented

Once used only at night, the Kurukupaa mask (made of creatively draped cloth as shown here) was one of a group of powerful masks exclusively made by women elders for their divination rituals. Under the cloth, the women in the mask holds a calabash gourd-filled with beads-on her head. In this photo, the Kurukupaa mask is responding to its audience, which is beseeching it, singing, "Kurukupaa, let the big calabash talk." As the audience sings and claps, the woman in the mask sways her head to create the rattling sound that gives the mask its poetic name: "Kurukupaa, Kurukupaa, Kurukupaa!" Since the 1920s, the mask has become a little girl's mask.

While images of African men donning masks for ceremonial rituals are familiar to many, Peter Weil, anthropology, has discovered that for centuries African women also have made and worn masks as part of an initiation system to mark important stages in their lives.

The research on African masking answers key questions about women's roles in African political power structures and women's access to spiritual powers. And, it provides new information on why humans wear masks.

In "Women's Masks and the Power of Gender in Mande History," Peter Weil recounts masking traditions among the female population of Bantunding, a former capital of the Mande state of Wuli in Senegambia.

The article is published in a special issue of African Arts, the premier authoritative research journal on all aspects of African art. Weil's article, initially submitted in 1995, sparked the idea for the special issue which also examines women's masking in the Caribbean.

"A major aspect of the creative arts of African cultures has historically encompassed the creation of masks and their use in performance. 'Masking' includes the design and making of masks, beliefs about the masks and their meanings and the actions of the persons wearing the masks," Weil, whose field of research is public art forms and political processes in complex societies, said.

Previously, Weil said, the only well-recognized case of masking by women involved women wearing masks made by men. His research on the Mandinka women is the first report of women wearing masks they made themselves.

And, while earlier research has documented women in West African coastal societies masquerading by painting their bodies, Weil's research shows that, in some cases, women actually had access to construction materials for masks that were once thought to be used only by men.

"Materials used to make masks affect the cultural meaning of the masks and thus are always considered important," he explained.

Additionally, Weil's research shows that, for the Mandinka women, creating masks was part of a system of initiations-a behavior that was formerly thought to the exclusive domain of African males-and that the masks were thought to transform the wearer through one or more mystical forces-again power once thought available only to men.

"In African cultures, politics and political power are embedded in many different aspects of everyday life, including religious beliefs and ritual behavior," Weil said. "If males, alone, control so important a portion of the mystical power through masks and the transformative rituals in which the masks play a part, then males control a majority of the political power.

"However, if both genders control such power, it shows that the most important sources of influence in the Mande, and probably other African societies, was more equitably distributed than previously thought.

"This means that we as scholars need to re-examine our theories about political behavior and gender concerning African societies and the history of that behavior," Weil said.

Additionally, because the Mandinka women's masks described in the article evolved over a 400-year period, in the context of the history of a state, scholars also may need to reexamine the presupposed theory that men in complex societies always have had superior access to power used in the public interest.

Specifically, Weil writes about women's masking he first observed on a field trip to the Gambia in the 1970s, expanding on his research in visits over the next 20 years. Constructed through creative cloth tying, 10 masks-with names like Mother Elephant, Baby Leopard, Land Turtle and Ostrich-are detailed, as are the rituals they accompanied.

Their relationships to women's caste systems, their evolution over history and their eventual disappearance or modification into children's games are also described.

Weil holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology and international relations from the University of Texas, Austin, and master's and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Oregon.

He joined UD in 1968 and has also served as a staff anthropologist for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He has traveled extensively in the Gambia and Senegal and also has conducted research on cultural factors in irrigation agriculture.

-Beth Thomas
Photo by Peter Weil

For information on African Arts, see http://www.isop.ucla.edu/jscasc/afrart/about.htm