The masks of the Marka (a Mande subgroup) originated in the landlocked country of Mali, West Africa. Long ago masks such as the Marka were thought to be extremely powerful and had the ability to frighten away evil spirits, convey messages from the spirit world and cure illnesses. The Marka would perform ceremonies devoted to fishing and farming, and their stylized masks would be danced to invoke the spirits to grant the community with abundant agricultural yields and a successful fishing season.
The masks of the Marka are narrow and austere, with a sharp chin. They are brightly painted or coated with metal along with raised ornamentation, achieving a fine decorative effect that is very distinctive and different from most other African mask styles. The men of the Marka, clad in costumes of colorful cloth, always appear in pairs to represent man’s wooing of woman. The most characteristic deviation from the Bambara style is the cover of metal sheeting worked in conjunction with three metal bars attached to the forehead and red cotton at the end of each. The Marka society used this mask in two rituals, at the circumcision ceremony of adolescents, and when circumcised men advance from one grade to another. Along the Niger River the Marka used the masks in ceremonies related to fishing and farming.
This ethnic group is independent from the Bambara tribe but their styles show a strong Bambara influence. They live in the region that extends from the north of the Bambara to the Senegalese border. They live principally from agriculture with some subsidiary cattle rearing in the northern part of their territory. The dry savanna permits no more than a subsistence economy, and the soil produces, with some difficulty, millet, rice, and beans.
Fertility played an important role in African Agricultural ceremonies. They were based on the idea that through the correct rituals, man could raise up the vital forces dwelling in a mask by gaining the blessing of his ancestor in order to help fertility and therefore achieve protection and primary security. The Agricultural Festivities the Africans celebrated were performed at different stages of the crop cycle. This crop cycle started with clearing of the land, then the planting, the reaping of the fruits, the harvest and finally the filling of the food stores. The concept of these festivals was the sacredness of the soil, which belonged to the ancestors, or the “masters of the soil”. A successful harvest therefore depended on the thanksgiving of the ancestors or sometimes upon the good will of the goddess of the earth. African Masks