Unmasking Today’s Strong Demand for Tribal Art

Left: Bete mask, Ivory Coast, wood with brass nails; Right: Dan mask, Ivory Coast, wood, Native (January 21, 2017)

Where past meets present, one finds an ideal collector’s item. Equal parts art and storytelling, tribal masks reflect the deep-rooted rituals and performances from cultures around the globe. These masks are an artifact of individual cultural heritage and artistic expression but also bear contemporary resonance with modern artists looking to them as a source of inspiration.

An Age Old Tradition

The tradition of mask making on the African continent, particularly among the cultures of west and central Africa, developed into a highly diverse and decorative art form for ritualistic performances. While they shared similar materials, these peoples created unique uses for masks that reflected intercultural artistic styles. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the cultures of the Pacific Northwest began using tribal masks for their own purposes. Universally, these masks became a vehicle for transformation during rituals: those who donned a mask embodied a new spirit and thus became part of a larger cultural experience.

New Context in the 20th Century

African masks gained new attention in the 20th century when artists such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Francis Bacon used such likenesses as inspiration for their paintings. Indeed, famed painter Pablo Picasso found such inspiration among the masks of his African tribal art collection that he incorporated them into his iconic painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), the painting later billed as signaling the start of Cubism. Though he denied such influence later in his career, the impact of tribal masks had already been felt across 20th-century art, renewing international interest in their styles and designs.

African Igala wooden helmet mask, Nigeria, c. early 20th century,
Artemis Gallery

The Tribal Mask Market Today

“There is demand for tribal masks that are ancient, and used in rituals – masks that are considered the best of their type,” say Sebastien Hauwaert and Nicolas Paszukiewicz, specialists at Native, a Belgian auction house that frequently sells African tribal masks. “Ideally, if the history – the date and place of origin, as well as provenance – is known, collectors will seek it. Masks are often from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, or Cameroon – and there’s a number of them out there that are still held in private collections, yet to be sold.”

Since the record-shattering sale of a Gabonese Fang Ngil mask at the 2006 Verite Collection auction in Paris for the final price of $7.5 million, sellers and collectors of tribal masks have seen prices escalate.

“Great styles can be found in different places. Collectors are really looking for the greatest mask expressions,” says Pazukiewicz.

These are some of the market’s most sought-after examples.

West African Tribal Masks

Masks originating within the cultures of Mali and its neighbors along the coast of West Africa such as the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria are among the most popular with collectors. Mali boasts some of the more magnificent mask-making traditions, with collectors clamoring for exceptional masks from the Dogon peoples, a tribe of central Mali. Dogon masks are typically designed for the dama ceremony, which involves the ritualistic transcendence of souls following death.

Bamana antelope headcrest (chi wara), Mali, Sotheby’s (May 2008)

Also popular are the chi wara masks of the Bamana, or Bambara, peoples that are designed for didactic rituals on the art of farming. They traditionally assume the shape of an antelope, as the Bamana believe that that an ancient antelope named “Chi Wara” was the source of early agricultural knowledge and thus the survival of the tribe.

Passport mask, Dan / Maou People of Ivory Coast, West Africa, carved wood, Primitive

Equally compelling are the Dan masks of the Ivory Coast. The Dan hold the art of mask-making as quintessential to their culture, thus Dan masks are believed to be both physical reference to a human being and also a metaphorical reference to the human spirit. Generally broken into two categories – the dean gle mask, which is designed to personify ideal beauty, and the bu gle mask, symbolizing the demonic through protruding and violent forms – dan masks in exceptional condition can, like their Mali and Ivory Coast kin, sell for remarkable prices. It is not unusual to see these masks cost tens of thousands; a truly exceptional Dan mask that appeared at a 2014 Sotheby’s auction achieved the record price of $149,000.

Central African Tribal Masks

As a compliment to the masks of West Africa, the tribes of the Central African coast, spanning the countries of Gabon to Angola, also enjoyed a rich mask-making heritage. These masks serve similar functions as their western African counterparts, yet some, like those of the Yaka and Kubu peoples, are distinct in their ornate adornments and incredibly intricate painted or beaded designs such as herringbone, zigzag, or other geometric patterns.

The Yaka peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo enjoy a wide array of mask designs for various religious rituals and events. One of the most prominent are those designed for male initiation ceremonies, and thus the designs reflect this use. Typically featuring a carved wooden face with a mane of beadwork or raffia, these masks are often also decorated with symbolic references to a man’s role in both the family and the overall culture.

Chowke mask, Zambia, Sotheby’s (May 2008)

The nearby Kuba culture also placed great stock in their mask designs, rendering likenesses of their royalty alongside specialized characters for ceremonies such as rites of passage or funerals. Showcasing spectacular faces decorated with meticulous shell and glass beadwork, Kuba masks are arguably some of the striking on the market.

Pacific Northwest Tribal Masks

Northwest Coast polychrome wood mask (Coast Salish or Cowichan), Bonham’s (June 2004)

For the North American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, mask making was a pivotal practice for storytelling. The tradition grew to an even greater extent following contact with Europeans beginning in the 18th century, when the introduction of more efficient tools meant tribal artists could create even more captivating designs. Creating fantastical characters with elaborate decorations, cultures from the Cowichan to the Tlingit peoples used masks to animate the spirits and figures of their respective origin stories that would then act out key narratives during elaborate winter performances. In some instances, these masks also served as talismans by representing a good spirit whose aim was to ward off bad ones.

Care & Preservation

An important consideration for collectors of tribal masks is the care and maintenance needed to preserve their integrity. Many of the tribal masks available on the market today date to the recent 19th century because the peril of their organic construction is its degradation. As a result, it is imperative that collectors pay attention to their masks’ preservation.

“A mask’s condition, its age, and its aesthetic qualities are key in determining value. Having an important historical past is also an asset,” say Hauwert and Paszukiewicz. “Sometimes, condition can be compensated by age or rareness, but collectors are more frequently demanding that great carvings in great condition.”

Cleaning & Storing

As a general rule of thumb, the unfinished wood of tribal masks should be dusted regularly. It should not, however, be cleaned with water, as it is difficult to predict how the aged wood will react to moisture. Masks should also be kept in a temperature controlled environment to avoid cracking or splitting of wooden components. It is also a good idea to keep masks contained with a vitrine or other display simply to reduce the loss of elements such as raffia or beads caused by over-handling. Some masks might require more pervasive cleaning or restoration work, in which case it is best to reach out to a professional art conservator.

“African masks in particular are often rather tolerant of our living conditions, but keep them away from extreme conditions like sun exposure, high humidity, and damaging household products,” say Hauwert and Paszukiewicz.

Though tribal masks on the market today often hail from the more modern 19th century, the history embodied in these masks reflects eons of cultural traditions and practices. At the same time, they offer a window into the richness of artistic expression, with an impressive array of designs and details revealing the extent of artistic expertise these cultures espoused. Investing as a collector of tribal masks means preserving this heritage and ensuring that the legacy of these deep-rooted traditions will live on for generations to come.

See African, Pacific Northwestern, and other extraordinary indigenous tribal masks to buy now at Primitive and Artemis Gallery, and in upcoming auctions.