D'mba mask (Baga peoples, Guinea), 19th-20th century, wood, 118.1 x 35.3 x 67.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
(classical music) - [Beth] We're at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and we're looking at a mask called a D'mba mask and it's made by the Baga people in Guinea. - [Peri] And when you think about a mask, we tend to think about something that goes on the face or even in African tradition something that's worn around the head like a helmet mask. We have four legs so to speak and the head of the wearer would have gone in there surrounded by fabric and Raffia underneath, but it doesn't read to me as a mask. It reads as a sculpture. - [Beth] It would have sat on the masker's shoulders and on the top of his head. It weighs about 80 pounds so it was very difficult to maneuver. - [Peri] Clearly, a female form. Her breasts are very prominent but worn by a man and the carver would have also been a man. - [Beth] Carving, mask making, and the wearing of masks is really the domain of men in West Africa. So while it's female in form, it has a female crested hairstyle and the pendulous breasts, it would have been danced by a male masquerader. - [Peri] It's so monumental that you immediately get a sense of the power of the idea that this sculpture represents. - [Beth] In many masquerading traditions in West Africa, masks are either the personification of a spirit whether it is the spirit of an ancestor or the spirit of a forest. - [Peri] Or the spirit of an animal. - [Beth] But in this case, it's actually none of those things. It's said to be a personification of beauty, of goodness, of a woman at her zenith in terms of her power and her potential. - [Peri] And unlike other sculptures that we see in African art where a female figure is shown with breasts that are very high at the prime of life in adolescence, here we have a woman depicted as powerful later in life after she has born and nursed and raised many children. - [Beth] So her breasts are flat, downturn, and it suggests that she's no longer able to nurse, rather her children are grown, they're healthy, and she has now entered into an important time in her life where she can inspire others. - [Peri] And must have garnered enormous respect from the community. - [Beth] It was danced as a way to inspire young men and young women who were going to become parents. - [Peri] And the audience would sometimes go up and touch her breasts. - [Beth] Well, the D'mba mask was worn historically during times of harvest and planting as well as lifecycle rituals. With the introduction of the Marxist regime after the fall of the colonial government in Guinea, masquerades such as this weren't performed anymore. But since the 1990s, there has been a renewed interest in bringing them back and so we find them again at festivals like marriage, like birth where women's fertility is really celebrated. - [Peri] We have three parts, this body with the breasts, the neck, and then this enormous head. We see decorative patterning on her face, scarification. We see a hairstyle that's also very specific. - [Beth] For women, it's meant to help give them the strength to go through childbirth and then the years and years of caring for that child until they make it to puberty. And for young men, it's thought to inspire them to provide for women as they go through this very difficult process. So in a sense while it's a female depiction, it's intended to help the entire community successfully support motherhood. - [Peri] And what's so wonderful to me too in that light is that there is this acknowledgement of the difficulty of not only childbirth but also motherhood. - [Beth] She seems massive and clunky. She's not dainty with refined features. This is power realized. And in that sense, she is beautiful. And it's intended to show the strength of women. - [Peri] The strength of older women because even though it is so abstract, there is a sense of her age here not just in her breasts but even in those abstracted facial features. - [Beth] And that maturity is also conveyed with her gaze. She looks very wise. - [Peri] A stable force for the community. (classical music)