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Date: late 19th to early 20th century
Geographic Location: Guinea
Dimensions: Overall: 49 1/4 x 16 1/8 x 27 11/16 in. (125.095 x 40.95 x 70.3 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Gustave and Franyo Schindler Collection of African Sculpture, gift of the McDermott Foundation in honor of Eugene McDermott
Object Number: 1974.SC.18
This headdress, from the Baga (BAA-gaa) peoples of Guinea, represents D’mba, the universal mother and an important symbol of mature femininity and fertility in the broadest sense. During D’mba fertility masquerades and other festive occasions, a male performer wears the heavy wooden headdress and voluminous palm fiber costume and dances to the delight of the audience
This headdress was originally adorned with ear ornaments and polished with oil. Carved from wood, this mask weighs about seventy-five pounds.
This colossal headdress represents D’mba, the universal mother and symbol of mature femininity. She is a fertility object, but one that is also concerned with the prosperity and well-being of the entire community. She is a welcome sight in agricultural rituals and during ceremonies commemorating human cycles of development such as births, funerals, and marriages. Between appearances, the headdress was kept out of public view. In some regions, the right to carry the mask was hereditary.
The breasts, delicate neck, crested hair style, and raised geometric patterns representing scarifications together manifest Baga (BAA-gaa) notions of femininity.
The replacement of a decayed D’mba headdress was ritualized, and those lucky enough to witness such a transfer of power were considered especially blessed and assured of long lives and large families. The old headdress was rendered homage by the entire village for a week, while the appearance of the new mask was met with a show of mock hostility.
Unlike other masks which were designed to cover only the face or head of the wearer, shoulder masks like this D’mba headdress were designed to cover both. A strong male dancer wore the headdress atop his head and cushioned its weight with a ring of cloth or fibers. The four legs of the mask were attached at the bottom to a hoop encircling his chest and back. Two holes between the breasts allowed the dancer to see outside the mask. During performances, this headdress was adorned with separately carved ear ornaments and polished with oil to achieve the glow of vitality. The wearer of the mask was also covered with a skirt made of thick layers of raffia strips that stretched to the ground and completely concealed his human appearance.
Shoulder masks are often very heavy. This one weighs seventy-five pounds and, when worn, could make its wearer over eight feet tall.
The masquerade, in many African cultures, is a ceremony which allows people to commune with, learn from, and be entertained by the spirits and ancestors which remain invisible to them in their day-to-day lives. During the masquerade, males of a community (or, in a few rare cases, females), are inhabited by the spirit of the mask they wear. These spirits have a number of different personalities. Some are entertaining while others are threatening or solemn. Some are silly while others are serious, and are used to educate children. The wearer of the mask is thought to become the mask’s spirit. Therefore, the identity of the person wearing a mask during a ceremony remains a secret.
Masks are often made of perishable organic materials like wood, fur, and feathers. When masks are damaged beyond repair, sculptors create new ones, and the spirits of the discarded masks find a new home in their replacements.
D’mba masquerades, which were suppressed by Muslim leaders in the 1950s, have experienced resurgence in some villages since the 1980s. Once, the D’mba mask was primarily worn during agricultural rituals supervised by the men’s simo society, but more recently, D’mba appears at more personal occasions such as circumcisions, marriages, funerals, and commemorative festivals.
The Baga Peoples, who reside in villages along the coast of Guinea and now number approximately 60,000, were once divided into small villages. Each village was governed by a council of elders, who derived their powers from specialized knowledge only they possessed and their interactions with spiritual beings. The religious regalia and ritual objects used by elders in ceremonies and male initiation rites were central to Baga artistic traditions, which persisted for several hundred years. A variety of religious and sociopolitical disturbances in the 1950s resulted in the suppression of Baga culture. In the 1980s, the D’mba festivals experienced resurgence.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.