There are a wide variety of masks in Africa. The existence of African masks has been traced as far back as the Stone Age, with traditional masks worn during celebrations, rituals, festivities, and ceremonies of social and religious importance. African masks most often represent spirits, animals, ancestors, entities, mythological heroes, and moral values. Their form and function may cover the face, the whole head, or even the entire body. The size of a mask, its shape, colours, and materials used tell a symbolic story among different African tribes.
Many African communities practice a tradition of performances called masquerades. These communal mask ceremonies, or dances, provide entertainment and music while defining social roles with religious meaning. The masks that are worn to perform in full costume are considered works of art. Charles Mbata, Founder and CEO of Jungle Color, is a digital fine art collector and curator who grew up observing masquerade performances as a child in Nigeria. His knowledge and understanding of the blockchain’s immutable technology became a source of inspiration.
Motivated by a desire to preserve the history and heritage of indigenous African art, Mbata’s ambition became the visionary catalyst for one of the most culturally significant African art projects to ever be minted on the blockchain. Together in collaboration with Chuma Anagbado, an award-winning multidisciplinary designer, artist, and entrepreneur, 15 talented performance poets were assembled. Masked is a remarkable historical collection of spoken word NFTs; steeped in the illustrious visual art and cultures of Africa’s past and present.
Masked is an NFT collection of 100 hand-drawn, digitally painted & animated illustrations reminiscent of Igbo ethnicity from Africa. The collection is a fusion of art, poetry, music, chant, and movement performed by contemporary creatives. Anagbado’s signature style is a nuanced blend of modern technology and Nigerian traditions; each work of art conveys 100 distinct expressions imbued with deep cultural meanings that transcend generations of human history. “The whole idea is to present the entirety of Africa,” Anagbado said.
“We started playing around with the idea of sounds and instruments and poetry to breathe life into the masks.” — Charles Mbata
Being an avid collector of Anagbado’s work, their collaboration was borne of familiarity between like-minds. “NFTs give us the opportunity to create something multidimensional,” Anagbado said. While recognizing Africa’s artistic contributions to world culture, Anagbado remains consciously aware of Africa’s present, which informs and inspires his process and technique to conceptualize modern art pieces that honor and reflect the past while celebrating Africa Now.
Anagbado is the Co-Founder of Aziza Design, Nigeria’s 1st multidisciplinary design firm. He is also actively involved with Mbari Uno (House of Collaboration), a collective of designers and professionals in activities rooted in indigenous realities. All of the poets featured in the Masked collection are leaders of the spoken word; galvanized by the creative ambitions of their own community to explore opportunities for collaborative growth.
“We let the poets name them,” Anagbado explained. The title of each NFT is the name of the piece performed by each poet in reaction and response to the NFT art they were paired with. Bunmi Africa, a writer and performance poet, was introduced to NFTs for the first time when she was approached to participate in the Masked project. “When you look at the paintings and compare them to what I wrote and performed, you will see a lot of similarities, because that’s what I was getting from the masks,” she said.
“NFTs are a different way to put my continent, my country, and my culture out into the world.” — Bunmi Africa
After conducting her own extensive research in preparation for Masked, Stacey Ravvero, a multilingual artist, author, and curator, was inspired to incorporate French, Spanish, and Urhobo, her native dialect, into her poems. Both French and Spanish are local languages in many parts of Africa, yet Urhobo is an endangered language. “As an urban historian, it’s my responsibility to do the little I can, even though I’m not as fluent as I want to be,” Ravvero said.
“Inclusivity was the key for me in a way where everyone feels represented in what I’ve written, and that’s its access.” — Stacey Ravvero
Although English is the primary language performed, care and consideration were made in an effort to include local languages and convey a sense of authenticity. “I felt like it was super important for me to infuse parts of my language,” Africa said. “Anagbado wanted us to interpret the masks in our own way, so he gave us a lot of freedom. A lot of my pieces are titled in Yorùbá. I gave them ancient names of Gods and masquerades. I also included Yorùbá proverbs and rituals.”
Unlike the typical process to create NFT collections by writing code that randomly generates unique combinations of predesigned traits and attributes, each NFT in the Masked collection is handmade by Anagbado himself. His work embraces the Mbari concept; a highly-collaborative investment of time and emotion. When contributors share insights, knowledge, and resources, the Mbari ideology provides space for nuanced works touting material and non-material aspects of cultural expression. “We can extend this into holograms and 3D experiences you can interact with and touch, maybe these will become extensions,” Anagbado envisioned.
“Masked forced me to confront some parts of my culture that I ignored for a long time.” — Stacey Ravvero
“A lot of people from my generation don’t know a lot about our history and deeper parts of our culture. So when you’re faced with a project like this, you go back to the books — back to your grandparents and parents to ensure you’re representing your culture the best way possible. This has given me some sort of identity that I felt was missing, and I hope others gain knowledge and some sense of identity from the art.”
Developed during the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdown, masks became a symbol illustrating the reality of protection and the significance of their collaboration. 15 spoken word artists who contributed to Masked have now been introduced to NFTs, and after a year of development, Masked is poised to mint the largest contingent of Nigerian poets on the blockchain in a single day.
“Masked is an NFT project we’re all going to look back upon in the future with pride. Years from now, we’ll all come to appreciate the cultural and historic implications of projects like this.” — Charles Mbata
Projects like Masked unite people of African descent in a shared legacy to bridge a connection to their roots. Nigeria is already unrivaled in Africa in terms of cultural output, with its influences in modern music changing the sound of global pop.
10% of proceeds from the sale of Masked will be donated to Osiri University, an online platform dedicated to closing the educational gap, primarily in Africa. Osiri University offers a decolonized curriculum for many who would otherwise not have access to pursue an advanced degree. In addition to its educational programs, Osiri University presents entrepreneurial opportunities for auspicious students to start businesses with mentorship and funding.
John Kalu Osiri, Founder of Osiri University, plans to launch a full-blown course on crypto with the help of expert instructors to empower students to alter the course of their own economic futures. “We have something to contribute to the world,” Osiri said.