Introductory Essay – Deformity Masks

Mask showing facial distortion made with wood, black and white pigments.
Mask showing facial distortion made with wood, black and white pigments.

This unusual collection, gathered over many years by Ann Goerdt, presents strong images that convince us of their power, even when seen outside of their cultural context. The detailed carving on these masks makes each of them striking and unusual. They originate in a variety of regions across the continent of Africa. Some are from cultures that are known to create masks with deformities, such as the Ibibio and Igbo in Nigeria, but others come from groups where such masks are far less common, such as the Kpelle and the Makonde. The information they are meant to convey varies among the different cultures, but clearly they were significant within their communities.

Most of the pieces in this collection have characteristics that look like deformities which could have been caused by a disease. A single mask may have a combination of deformities, but only one of them would suggest an image of what a disease would cause. In both cases, it is easy to imagine the influence that diseases within a community may have had, but without verification from the carvers, it is not possible to say that disease was the primary influence.

The relationship between disease and the deformities in masks has been noted in scattered texts, with articles that usually address a single cultural group. A presentation may consist of a single object, or a sample of masks from one group, related to a specific disease with or without commentary on how the objects were used. This unique collection is presented with a new approach for examining deformity masks. The history of diseases in Africa shows that diseases and conditions that could be reflected in the masks did indeed exist in the areas where the masks originated. An analysis of the way in which the masks were used describes the various roles such masks have played within all of the cultural groups represented. Further information on how the masks have been used focuses on West Africa.

This includes an early analysis of the creation and the role of masks with deformities, and a history of how the Ekpo society, which is well represented in this collection, has evolved over many decades.

Looking at the masks and figures presented in this collection, we may be reminded of the distress that fearsome diseases once engendered in their communities. But we also see the creativity of these cultures and their artists, in extracting meaning from calamity, and sometimes comedy from chaos. The names of the imaginative artists who gave form to these carvings are, in most cases, lost to history, but they have given us exceptional beings to decipher. I commend these authors for compiling cogent and engrossing explanations to help us understand the significance of these fascinating masks and figures.