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south african culture – african masks throughout africa – zulu people – corey barksdale

clow2ground@gmail.com or 615.601.2787

The culture of South Africa is known for its ethnic and cultural diversity. The South African majority still has a substantial number of rural inhabitants who lead largely impoverished lives. It is among these people, however, that cultural traditions survive most strongly; as South Africans have become increasingly urbanized and Westernised, aspects of traditional culture have declined. Urban South Africans usually speak English or Afrikaans in addition to their native language. There are smaller but still significant groups of speakers of Khoisan languages, not included in the eleven official languages, but are one of the eight other officially recognised languages. There are small groups of speakers of endangered languages, most of which are from the Khoisan family, that receive no official status; however, some groups within South Africa are attempting to promote their use and revival.

Members of middle class, who are predominantly white but whose ranks include growing numbers of people of colour, have lifestyles similar in many respects to that of people found in Western Europe, North America and Australia. Members of the middle class often study and work abroad for greater exposure to the markets of the world.

Indian South Africans preserve their cultural heritage, languages and religious beliefs, being either Christian, Hindu or Muslim and speaking English, with Indian languages like Hindi, Telugu, Tamil or Gujarati being spoken less frequently as second languages. The first Indians arrived on the Truro ship as indentured labourers in Natal to work the Sugar Cane Fields, while the rest arrived as traders. A post-apartheid wave of South Asian (including Pakistani) immigration has also influenced South African Indian culture. There is a much smaller Chinese South African community, made up of early immigrants, apartheid-era immigrants from Taiwan, and post-apartheid immigrants from mainland China.

Ritual and ceremonial masks are an essential feature of the traditional culture of the peoples of a part of Sub-Saharan Africa, e.g. roughly between the Sahara and the Kalahari Desert. While the specific implications associated to ritual masks widely vary in different cultures, some traits are common to most African cultures. For instance, masks usually have a spiritual and religious meaning and they are used in ritual dances and social and religious events, and a special status is attributed to the artists that create masks to those that wear them in ceremonies. In most cases, mask-making is an art that is passed on from father to son, along with the knowledge of the symbolic meanings conveyed by such masks. African masks come in all different colours, such as red, black, orange, and brown.

African countries where masks are used traditionally
Traditional African masks are one of the elements of great African art that have most evidently influenced Europe and Western art in general; in the 20th century, artistic movements such as cubism, fauvism and expressionism have often taken inspiration from the vast and diverse heritage of African masks. Influences of this heritage can also be found in other traditions such as South- and Central American masked Carnival parades.

In most traditional African cultures, the person who wears a ritual mask conceptually loses his or her human life and turns into the spirit represented by the mask itself. This transformation of the mask wearer into a spirit usually relies on other practices, such as specific types of music and dance, or ritual costumes that contribute to conceal the mask-wearer’s human identity. The mask wearer thus becomes a sort of medium that allows for a dialogue between the community and the spirits (usually those of the dead or nature-related spirits). Masked dances are a part of most traditional African ceremonies related to weddings, funerals, initiation rites, and so on. Some of the most complex rituals that have been studied by scholars are found in Nigerian cultures such as those of the Yoruba and Edo peoples, that bear some resemblances to the Western notion of theatre.

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