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Gambia's Ritual Wooden Masks
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Symbolic Meaning:
Gambian masks represent a distinct symbolic attribute and cultural significance depending on the ethnic group who uses it and it plays and important role in certain tribal ceremonies, harvest time and rites of passage. This is true of many mask ceremonies in Africa. As in many other African societies they play a much lesser role in Gambian daily life especially with the advent of Islam & Christianity which forbids idol worship.

Many tribes attach a symbolic meaning to masks and furthermore ascribe supernatural, magical powers to many of them as representing a spirit or deity such as the Dogon Tribe of Mali. These are not the wooden carved masks sold by sculptors in tourist craft markets in Senegambia, for which not much spiritual value is placed, but are the types reserved for purely ceremonial purposes which rarely go on sale. They are passed down from generation to generation. They are used in various rites of passage such as circumcision and weddings as well as representing a form of ancestral worship in local Gambian villages.

Some masks represent animistic fetishes such as the Jola's Jalang which is supposed to have magical powers which can alter future events. Sometimes a shrine is constructed for them and they would be consulted like an oracle over important decisions about the villages affairs. Such works are normally made by particular castes of people belonging to certain tribes and their very grotesque nature represents no value except the spititual significance meaning.

Where to Find Them:
Such creations can be found at at most tourist craft stalls but to find real variety you should try either the Brikama woodcarvers Market, Albert Market in Banjul, Bakau or the craft shops along Sayer Jobe Avenue in Serrekunda. There are also a number of shops selling genuine antique wood masks as well at other ritual objects such as the African Living Art Centre in Fajara. The tribal group who specialise in wooden crafts are the Sowe, Lobeh, Janha, Sarr and Njie families whose works can be seen at Brikama.

Ritual Uses of Masks:
One of the rites of passage ceremony for Mandingo boys in The Gambia, West Africa, ends with the young men wearing the wooden carved masks of the elements they would like to be imbued with when they become fully grown adults. It is the very three dimensional way the mask is made and its various textured forms that indicate what kind of supernatural spirit occupies it. In Africa there are different kinds of masks with different values placed on each one such as the birth mask or the one that indicates the coming harvest. Historically they were also worn by some warriors to protect them in time of battle against any physical harm from spears and arrows. Chiefs would use them when passing new laws and regulations as such was the respect people had for them they would obey. They also served the purpose of reminding people of their rules of society as well as acting as a spiritual arbiter in cases involving village disputes.

There are some who are of the belief that masks are made by spirits who wish to occupy them. Such is the power that it holds on certain societies that sometimes only men may look upon them and sometimes only the person who carved them. They are often worn by a performer who is held by their power while performed a masked dance. However, such are their uses that they can be created for entertainment and anybody can view them. The older and more damaged the mask the less it is valued as a symbol as it is believed that the spirit would move on to find another host and these are the artifacts to be found on display in museums around the world.

Types Worn:
Apart from the face masks there are also types worn around the waist and down to the feet. They can often be made having a combination of human and animal characteristics in order to connect the power of the animal concerned with the human world.

How Wooden Masks are Made:
One single piece of unblemished wood is used which is then left out in the open to cure. It could be hardwood or rosewood. Work begins as the log is rough shaped using an axe then its features are defined using a chisel and finally it is smoothed using sandpaper. In some methods the final step is to apply several coats of varnish, plant pigmentation or powder from burnt wood.

Such symbols are not only made of wood but also can include animal hides, wood, plant fibres and people's hair in order to connect the spirits to the human world.

Masked dance

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