Elaine and Jim
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Red Case: Myths and rituals

Unknown artist

Marka Mask

Unknown artist Marka mask late 19th - early 20th century, Brass, wood, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Unknown artist Marka mask late 19th – early 20th century brass, wood National Gallery of Australia enlarge

Who are the Marka, and why do they make masks?
This mask was made by the Marka people who live in Mali, a landlocked country in Africa. Long ago masks such as this one were thought to be extremely powerful and that they could frighten away evil spirits, convey messages from the spirit world and cure illnesses. This mask represents Tji Wara, meaning ‘champion farmer’, who is a supernatural being. He is said to have given the Marka people the skills of farming and to have taught Faro, the first blacksmith, to forge copper. Because Faro is believed to have ridden an antelope down from Heaven, Tji Wara is usually shown as a stylised antelope, including tusks. A dancer would wear the mask at agricultural festivals and male initiation ceremonies, adding a big raffia costume and headdress and imitating the leaps of the antelope.

How was the mask made?
This mask is made of carved wood and has brass decorations. In Mali some masks are made by blacksmiths who are feared for their power to use fire to forge images of the supernatural beings and live apart from the rest of the village. The maskmaker would probably say that he saw the image inside the raw wood and cut material away to free it. Masks are not very common today and there are very few people who can make them.

  • Find Mali on a map of Africa. How close is it to the sea? Why do people wear masks?
  • List all the characters you know who wear masks. Make a mask and decorate it with your favourite design (it could be an animal). How do you feel when you wear it?
  • Do people treat you differently when you are wearing a mask?