Telling Objects: Initiation
Launch the Initiation slide show
The transition from childhood to adulthood is a difficult process. For teenagers it is a confusing time involving tremendous physical and emotional change. Psychologist Carl Jung notes that this is a time when children seek individuation or the development of the self as distinctive from mother and father. This individuation process is a period of growing responsibility and separation from the family group. Many (if not all) cultures have rituals that aid in this key transition from child to adult. The completion of the ritual initiates a new period and position in life. In the United States, initiation rituals are exemplified by such events as getting one's driver's license, attending a prom, and participating in a commencement ceremony. These occurrences symbolically identify a readiness for proceeding into adulthood. Certain artifacts are associated with these rituals, such as special dresses, tuxedos, corsages, mortarboards, robes or diplomas.
The exhibition contains four masks used in boys' adulthood initiation ceremonies, each from a different culture. They portray distinctive stylistic characteristics. In general, the mask form is a physical mechanism to depict transformation; changing one's appearance changes the self. In addition to masks, elaborate costumes are worn. Several of the masks shown have raffia around the edges. The raffia suggests how the complete costume would look. Life in rural Africa is often harsh, dangerous and physically challenging. Initiation rites reflect this reality.
Initiation masks are of two basic types: masks worn by young male initiates and masks worn by the men in charge of the ritual. The Helmet Mask (Mbala) from the Yaka culture, the Stele Headdress (Bansonyi or a-Mantsho-ña-Tshol) from the Baga culture, and the Face Mask (Kukunga) of the Suku culture are worn by youths who must exhibit great stamina and skill while wearing them. Originally a mask representing a female character would accompany the Face Mask (Kukunga). Males would play both male and female roles in a drama illustrating the challenges of adulthood. Men from the male association in charge of the initiation ritual in the Mokondé culture wore the Helmet Mask (Muti Wa Lipiko). Lipiko, a fierce creature, challenged the initiate to overpower and unmask him. This drama inaugurated manhood.
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