The Nimba mask remains one of the most cherished historical relics that symbolizes the cultural identity of the Baga people of Guinea. It has a human face with the jaws of a crocodile, the horns of an antelope, the body of a serpent and the tail of a chameleon.
The mask is from the Baga people who reside in the northern coast of Guinea and the southern coast of Guinea Bissau. The Nimba mask is important to Guinea crop production because of its role in the historical rice harvest dance ceremonies of the Baga people. It’s performed to promote the fertility of the fields.
Nimba depicts the divinity of abundance and fertility in the Guinean tribe’s belief systems. Some literature have linked Nimba masks with representations of a pregnant woman, according to the museum of African art. The lavish headdress of the mask also symbolizes power and manliness while the large breasts attached to the Nimba mask represent fertility.
Among the Baga tribe, the mask, the hair dress and breasts associated with Nimba are cultural identities that set them apart from other tribal groupings. The Baga people often live in marshy landscapes which flood six months of the year. In times of drought, they depend on water from a dugout canoe.
They live in villages divided into two to four quarters, which are in turn divided into five or six clans headed by a clan head. The clan heads are usually the eldest member of each clan.
The mainstay of the Baga tribe is fishing and agriculture. While the men fish and grow cola nuts, the women grow rice. They worship the god Kanu who is assisted by male and female spirits, according to literature from tribal African art.
The only ritual performed by the Baga is during the rite of passage for its teenagers at every twenty-four years. Also, before the burial of a tribesperson of Baga descent, the remains are displayed in a sacred wood.
Though many cultural belief systems of the Baga had been outmoded following the advent of Islam, the Nimba mask has stood against the times and influences of modernization.
This is partly because of the Nimba mask’s association with fertility. Sterile women in the Simo secret society are known to invoke the spirit of female fertility during the rice harvest festival where the Nimba mask is on full display.
It is believed that the wearing of the Nimba mask at birth, marriages and joyful ceremonies is in honor of the blessings received from the mother of fertility. Scholars in their works have pointed out many artists have taken inspiration from the culture of the Baga tribe of Guinea.
Legendary artists like Picasso and Mattiso’s work are believed to have been inspired by the Nimba mask in the mid-twentieth century. Picasso’s instrumental work on his young mistress Marie-Therese in 1930 is believed to have been linked to the Nimba masks in his collection of African sculptures.
Mattiso is quoted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as writing to his sister and telling her of his fond memories of gazing at African art for long periods of time. Mattiso said he takes a lot of inspiration from paper cutouts which form part of his final major works.
Alan Donovan, founder of Africa’s first Pan African Gallery, African Heritage Limited, said the thought-provoking theme behind the Nimba mask is what inspired him to use it as his company’s logo.
He exports arts and crafts from Africa and he observed that the Nimba mask is displayed on all his shopping bags, receipts and letterheads.