Unmasking the meaning behind color in African art

In the art of Africa, the mask is a versatile, multipurpose facade. It may signify identity and the ancestors, politics and medicine or the invisible world of the spirits. And in whatever form a mask appears, color is integral to its meaning.

Now color is the subject of the second installment of Meditations on African Art, a three-part series at the Baltimore Museum of Art that explores African art from the point of view of the people who created it.


The modestly scaled show presents about 30 traditional African masks from the museum's collection arranged in four groups: red, white, black and the tricolor that incorporates all three hues.

"In European art, color is generally understood in terms of the primary colors red, yellow and blue," says Karen Milbourne, the BMA's curator of African art. "But throughout much of Africa, the primary colors are red, white and black. They don't mean the same thing to every group, but they appear over and over again."


Among many African peoples, the color white, for example, may signify the spirit world of the ancestors, the procreative power of sperm or the nurturing quality of mother's milk, Milbourne says.

Red, by contrast, might signify the blood shed in warfare or in childbirth, while black may connote the unknown.

Still, there is no single interpretation of color among Africa's many peoples, Milbourne cautions.

"Among the Urhobo people of Nigeria, for example, red refers to the ideal feminine beauty of a nubile bride," she says. "But among Pende people in Congo Zaire, red is the color of masculinity, and for Bullom people of Sierra Leone, it's the color of blood lost in childbirth and warfare, so it has to do with the transformations of life."

The show focuses on the ways in which the qualities associated with red, white and black manifest themselves on various types of masks, one of the African art forms most familiar to Western viewers.

For example, the section devoted to the color white includes a group of three "maiden" masks used by the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria, for whom white signifies the beauty and purity of a young bride.

The section devoted to the color red, by contrast, includes three male masks used by the Pende people of Congo, while the section on the color black displays a trio of masks with distorted features created by Nigeria's Ibibo people that represent antisocial behaviors that should be avoided.

These groupings of three illustrate the diversity of styles found even among artists of the same tribe. All three of the white Igbo "maiden" masks, for example, depict the young woman's hair in elaborate coiffures, but there are also subtle variations in the facial features and ornaments of each mask.


"What we see is how one culture can take the same form and realize it in distinctive ways," says Milbourne. "For example, in the section on the color black we have three masks, with crossed eyes and twisted noses, because they're meant to be moral prohibitions. They perform to illustrate what is not acceptable behavior.

"In the first, the artist has turned the nose in one direction and the mouth in a completely different direction," Milbourne says. "Another has bared teeth and an owl on its head. Its eyes are cockeyed, so it's sort of comical, but it's still an expression of the need to handle negative forces in order to foster social good. The third mask has horns and a very crusty surface."

Milbourne has chosen to open the exhibition with an example of contemporary African art that uses red, white and black to comment on present-day realities.

The BMA commissioned Tunisian-born artist Fatma Charfi to create an installation on the subject of identity at the gallery entrance. Charfi, who resides in Switzerland, created a work that reflects aspects of her own identity as a woman, an African and an expatriate.

Using the idea of the mask or facade as a way of exploring identity, Charfi's installation centers on a 150-foot-long white lace wedding veil that the artist made as a costume for her performance art.

Embedded in the veil are hundreds of tiny figures made of twisted, hand-painted silk paper that represent both the bride and the global migration of peoples around the world.


In Charfi's personal symbolism, the veil represents the marriage of different peoples and societies, while the colors red, white and black -- employed in other parts of the installation -- represent her Arab, Swiss and African identities.

"Meditations on African Art: Color" runs through Aug. 19 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Call 443-573-1700 or go to