How one artist reclaims the African masks with his NFTs

When asked to think of traditional African art, many would think of the African mask. It’s such a ubiquitous image of Africa that tourist shops will sell commercially made masks to foreign visitors of any African country. But before this mass-produced reality, collectors (often Europeans) who wanted these masks had to get it straight from the source: the African tribes that made these masks.

However, these African tribes never made these masks to be sold and shipped thousands of kilometers away. Every single mask was crafted with a very specific, often ritualistic intention. Sometimes they are passed down from generation to generation and the value of the mask exceeds the materialistic cost of the mask. But, whether through violent means or not, many of these tasks end up in private collections, never to be seen again. And just like that, centuries of tradition are cut off. 

Thanks to colonization, many younger Africans don’t realize the rich history they have. It never occurred to them that they might have descended from great people that made beautiful things. That’s one of the things artist Kofi Obuobi realized when his mentor,  Dr.Malcolm Donald McLeod, told him of the masks stored away in private collections. This lit a fire within Obuobi and he began searching for a way to right this wrong.

Almost coincidentally, Obuobi stumbled upon NFTs. This new thing drew many different people, looking for different things from it. But for Obuobi, this was the perfect tool for his mask project. NFTs have a property that traditional works of art don’t have. NFTs can give you ownership, but the file itself lives on the internet and can be accessed by anyone. It was the perfect situation for Obuobi. By recreating these African masks into NFTs, Obuobi can reclaim ownership of the masks while still democratizing them.

Since May 2021, Obuobi has created hundreds of NFTs based on masks from around the African continent. Some versions of the masks are rendered with more realistic and traditional colors while others feature neon colors and futuristic materials. But most importantly, with every mask comes a detailed description of what the mask is, where it came from, who made it, how it was made, and how they are traditionally used. 

Aesthetically, the rendered masks attract our attention. They’re beautiful and very pleasant to look at. Once someone pays attention to the NFT, they then start learning about the deep history that is attached to every mask. Here’s a snippet of the description of this Baule mask.

“Baule Mask constitutes the second in a series of four masks performed as entertainment by the Baule people. The dance series is known as Goli, and this mask is known as Goli Glin. The mask is worn with an ample costume of woven green palm fronds that emphasizes the association with wild nature.”

Kofi Obuobi’s body of work (and his OpenSea page) is quickly becoming a great database and learning material of these African masks, ensuring that they will never be lost within the grasps of a private collector ever again.

You can view Kofi Obuobi's works on his Instagram or his OpenSea profile.

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