Few objects are so generally identified with African art as the Bamana "antelope" crest mask. It is actually a complex object, with tremendous variations in style and technique. These differences are usually attributed to the regional styles set forth in 1960 by Robert Goldwater, whose work relied on museum-based research and the 1934-35 field data of F. H. Lem.
This mask exemplifies a style of carving that uses a vertical one-piece format that emphasizes the neck and mane. It is distinguished by the deep inside curve of the throat, the dividing of the neck into openwork and triangular elements, the two notched forms articulating the mane, and the curved, unadorned tail. Other traits--the straight vertical horns, bending backward at the tip, covered with spiral incised decoration on the shaft; the elongated face and nose with parallel lines carved from the forehead band to the mouth; the bands of triangular impressed patterns obscured by a thick patina--are shared with groupings such as the Master of the Flying Mane.
Despite disparate forms, "antelope" crest masks share the same symbolism. Most African artists use depictions of animals to convey lessons. An appropriate animal is selected according to well-known distinctive physical or behavioral traits. The physical features of different animals are often combined to create mythical creatures whose symbolic powers are greater than ordinary beasts. These crest masks combine the horns of a large antelope; the body of an aardvark with its big ears, short legs and thick tail; and the textured skin and curling ability of the pangolin--all animals who dig up the earth. This makes them fitting representations of Chi Wara, the supernatural being who the Bamana traditionally believed taught people to farm. Earrings, of red fiber or cowrie shell, reinforce the idea that these are not ordinary animals.
Young men once wore male and female pairs of masks in a dance performance that taught, praised and encouraged good farmers. Ceremonies were held in the fields. Today, because of conversion to Islam and modern changes in employment and school attendance, the masquerade has become more a popular entertainment and less a performance associated with a men's initiation society. Many replicas of the mask can be found for sale in urban markets; it is even copied in other parts of Africa for the export trade.