African Masks Examined: History, Type, Role, Meaning & Examples
One of the most enduring and fascinating aspects of African culture is masks. In Western museums and private collections, they are treated as artistic objects appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. However, their role in African society is more functional than artistic.
Read on and you will learn everything you need to know about the African mask tradition.
Ancient African Masks
Africans have been making masks since prehistory. The earliest evidence we have for masking in Africa comes from rock paintings in Algeria at Tassili n'Ajjer.
These show masks that look a lot like contemporary West African masks and date to about 11,000 years ago. We don’t know how these masks were used though.
The function of ancient Egyptian masks, however, is better known.
The most famous of these is the boy king Tutankhamun’s gold funerary mask, which was placed on his mummy and weighed a whopping 22.5 pounds (10 kilos).
Funerary mask of Tutankhamun.
Made from two sheets of gold: the face and neck are made from 18.4-carat gold and the rest is made from 22.5-carat gold. It is decorated with a number of precious stones.
Throughout ancient Egyptian history, funerary masks of lesser artistic quality were placed on mummies of common people.
There are three known types of masks depicting animal-headed gods from ancient Egypt. A priest wore a mask of the jackal-god Anubis mask during funerary rituals, which are depicted in Egyptian art.
Two such masks also survive. One is a light wooden mask that would have sat on top of the head but the other is a clay helmet that weighs a whopping 17 pounds!
Masks of the lion-headed god Bes also were used in rituals, including perhaps puberty rituals, as depicted in one tomb where a masked individual accompanied dancing boys. (1)
Priests wore masks of the falcon-headed god Horus during various religious rituals as well.
Types of African Masks
African masks take on different forms. They may only cover the face, or go over the entire head, cover part of the torso, or be a headdress that rests on top of the head.
Some are very small, some are life-size, and others are gigantic.
Some masks represent animals, either in their form or by incorporating actual parts of animals into their production.
Others represent male or female figures. Those that represent women generally take on an idealized view of female beauty.
10 Examples of African Masks
The number of types of African masks probably reaches into the hundreds, primarily among the cultures of West and Central Africa.
Below is a sampling of ten types of masks, their uses and the cultures with which they are associated.
Mask (Kanaga), Mali, Dogon peoples, 20th century, wood, fiber, hide, pigment, 53.6 x 97.2 x 15.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Kanaga mask is a funerary mask worn by the Dogon people of Mali intended to ensure the safe passage of the deceased to the otherworld where his ancestors are. (2)
Alternate view, Kòmò Helmet Mask (Kòmòkun), 19th–mid-20th century, Guinea or Mali or Burkina Faso or Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, Komo or Koma Power Association, Wood, bird skull, porcupine quills, horns, cotton, sacrificial materials, 35.2 x 22.1 x 85.6 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The threatening-looking Kòmò Helmet Mask is worn by the Bamana people of Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire. Secret societies wear the mask during private meetings where they learn about the society’s history, rituals and beliefs. (3)
Mask (Nwantantay), Burkina Faso, Black Volta River region, Bwa peoples. 19th–20th century, wood, pigment, and fiber, 182.9 x 28.2 x 26 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Nwatantay mask of the Bwa people of Burkina Faso represents natural spirits that cannot be seen by humans. The designs of the masks teach important moral and social lessons during dances performed for funerals, agricultural rituals, and initiations. (4)
Helmet Mask, 19th-20th century, Sierra Leone, Moyamba region, Mende or Sherbro peoples, wood, metal, 47.9 x 22.2 x 23.5cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The helmet mask of the Mende people of Sierra Leone is unusual in that it is worn by female initiates of a young women’s association. While the face represents ideal female beauty, the beard indicates that women are equal to men in their knowledge. (5)
Private collection of author (Okuyi mask from Gabon) - Sydney, Australia (wikipedia.org/wiki/okuyi/)
The okuyi mask is worn among the Bantu people of Cameroon, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea during rites of passage such as infants reaching 4 months of age, adolescence, and funerals. These rituals can last for hours and are accompanied by dancing and singing. (6)
The nkanda of the Democratic Republic of Congo wear these masks during puberty and circumcision rites. They represent ancestors or important figures within their culture. (7)
Muslim communities such as the Koro of Nigeria also use masks as part of rituals. The koro mask lacks any human or animal representations, in keeping with Islamic scripture. (8)
Made by the Makonde people of Tanzania and Mozambique, these helmet masks featured prominently in rituals used during different life stages of children. (9)
During three day long funerals of the Senufo tribe in Côte d’Ivoire, members of the secret male Poro society wear these masks while beating on drums next to the funerary bed. (10)
The Bobo people of Burkina Faso believe the son, Dwo, of the creator god, was left on earth to mediate between man and God. This mask represents him but does not depict him, because he cannot be seen, and is used in performances intended to maintain the balance of nature in the agricultural society. (11)
The Role of African Masks
Meaning and Function
African masks are not simply beautiful artistic objects to be admired. Rather, they are part of a ceremonial costume. They are not meant to represent actual people or even animals.
These masks served as a way for people to communicate with the spirit world. The spirits that take up residence in the masks can be ancestors or natural entities.
When the mask wearer puts on the mask, his identity is taken over by the spirit represented by the mask.
People are not even allowed to speak the name of the mask wearer because he is subsumed in the mask spirit's identity.
African masks also serve as educational tools, as part of rituals to teach social roles and physical control or to settle disputes. All community members were required to attend Igbo masquerades in Nigeria, where the masked individuals would approach people and tell them the bad behavior they engaged in.
Masks play a central role in masquerades, during which the mask wearers danced accompanied by music.
Masks representing dead ancestors play an important role in African funerals. Masks are also worn during rites of passage, such as mass circumcision of boys or during initiation into secret societies.
Examples of African Masks Being Used in Rituals
Nigerian Igbo Masquerades
All community members were required to attend Igbo masquerades in Nigeria, where the masked individuals would approach people and tell them the bad behavior they engaged in.
Igbo initiates wearing tall masks made from calabash.
Dogon funeral in Mali
Tiriki circumcision ceremony in Kenya, where boys are secluded for four weeks.
Masked figure with lion head and boys during a possible ancient puberty ritual.
The Making of an African Mask
Who Made African Masks?
African mask makers were often farmers or blacksmiths by trade or people who learned as apprentices from other artists, who they paid to teach them for two or three years.
Families often passed the tradition down from generation to generation. In most cultures, the mask maker was a respected member of society.
Carving a mask with an adze. https://www.kunst-aus-westafrika.com/scondjwin-dagnogo-images
The Design Process of African Masks
Highly stylized in design, African masks are not intended as portraits of real people. Mask designers usually follow traditional designs, especially ones that pleased spirits in the past.
By copying these carefully, the artists believe that they will attract other spirits to dwell in them.
Sometimes a person will have a dream that inspires the design of a mask.
They would then go to the local elders and describe the dream, and these elders would take a decision as to whether the mask should be made or not.
Geometric and symmetrical patterns often play a prominent role in the design of African masks.
These include parallel lines, curves, spirals, and cruciform shapes all are found.
Certain patterns distinguish the two genders, with prominent bouffant hairstyles indicating women. Sometimes the patterns represent scarification of the face that is common in some African cultures.
Some are influenced by other faiths, such as crosses representing Christianity and patterns inspired by Islamic art.
The most important material used in mask making is wood.
Wood is plentiful in Africa’s forests. Trees are thought to possess a soul and therefore it is a good material to house the spirit of the mask.
Sometimes an offering or sacrifice is even made to the tree’s soul before it is chopped down.
African mask makers work with many materials including brass, copper, bronze, brass, terracotta and glazed pottery, raffia and fabrics.
Decorative elements they apply to masks include cowrie shells, beads, bone, animal skins, feathers, and vegetable fibers.
The pigments and dyes used to color the wood are natural materials such as clay, seeds, tree bark and leaves.
The Mask Making Process
The mask maker carves the mask using a traditional tool called an adze. This and his other tools each had a spirit that dwelled in it and a sacrifice had to be made to the tools before commencement of the work.
For the mask to be endowed with its intended powers, it needed to be consecrated by a priest, medicine man or magician.
Only through these rituals, which often involved adding magical substances to the mask, would the spirits who were intended to dwell in the mask take up their abode there.
Collections of African Masks
The history of African mask collecting has gone through several stages since Europeans began to collect masks in the 19th century during their colonial forays into Africa.
At first, Europeans treated masks as ethnographic objects, and displayed them in natural history museums alongside taxidermied animals, exotic plant remains and fossils.
By the early 20th century, the same masks came to be regarded as art objects and were collected by and displayed in art museums. (12)
Masks In Museums outside Africa
Many museums struggle with the ethics of collecting and displaying African masks, due to the way in which some of the masks were collected and the spiritual implications of the masks.
When considering a mask in the Brooklyn Museum collection for an exhibition, the curator discovered that the mask, donated to the museum in 1998, had actually been stolen from a shrine in Nigeria in 1948.
She consulted the descendants of the family that had fashioned the mask on what to do.
The curator and the family conducted a divination ceremony with the gods as part of the decision making process. The gods told them that the mask was no longer spiritually empowered so the museum put the mask on display with the family’s blessing. (13)
President Emmanuel Macron of France commissioned a report on the restitution of sub-Saharan African art to Africa and the authors recommended that art in French museums either be temporarily or permanently returned to the continent from whence it came. (14)
Some of the best museums outside Africa to view African masks include the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, and the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (they also have a collection from the now-defunct, Museum of Primitive Art in New York).
In Europe, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris and the British Museum all have excellent collections.
Masks In African Museums
Unfortunately, some of the greatest collections of African masks are outside the continent. However, some African museums also display collections of masks.
Among the museums where you can see masks in Africa is the National Museum of Burkina Faso or the newly inaugurated National Museum in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Dundo Museum in Angola displays masks that were previously looted but returned.
Famous Private Art Collections
Collecting African art and masks, in particular, became en vogue among famous 20th century European and American artists. (15)
The masks began being featured prominently in their artworks or inspiring them.
Among these are Man Ray’s surrealist photo Noire et Blanche, one of many photographs he produced that featured West African artworks that he collected.
Noire et Blanche by Man Ray.
After a visit to the ethnographic museum in Paris, Pablo Picasso also started collecting masks and went through a period when he painted paintings that were inspired by them.
However, critics have complained that these works are examples of cultural appropriation and that the original craftsmen who produced the masks were never compensated for their contribution to these works. (16)
Should You Buy an African Mask?
If you want to buy a historical & authentic African mask, be prepared to shell out a good sum of money. The record paid for an African mask was $7.5 million at an auction in 2006.
Picasso was said to have been inspired by the Ngil mask from the Feng culture, hence the high price.
You have to be careful when buying an African mask as forgeries are common. (17)
The same ethical considerations that museums face also make buying African masks as an individual collector tricky.
Some of these masks are stolen and Africans are increasingly engaging in campaigns to get them back.
For example, Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo has been tracking stolen masks since 2014.
When he identifies one, he approaches the owner and asks for proof of how much they paid for the mask. He then makes them an offer to buy it at the same price. If they refuse, he sends his lawyers after them.
He has successfully returned a number of masks this way. (18)
However, there is an alternative for those who don’t have a lot of money to spend and don’t want to worry about legalities but want to get started collecting African masks.
Contemporary artists like Sefah Mohamed from Accra, and Abdul Aziz Mohamadu, sell their handmade masks at affordable prices online. (19, 20)
The demand for masks by tourists visiting Africa is so great that even in East Africa where they are less common, masks based on West African designs are sold in markets.
The Chinese have even gotten in on the business and some masks come with a “Made in China” sticker!
Frequently Asked Questions About African Masks
Where can I see an African mask dance (masquerade)?
Attending an African masquerade is a special experience that generally requires being part of African societies. However, mask dances are sometimes a focus of special tours to Africa, and Dogon mask dances are often performed specially for tourists.
What do African masks represent?
African masks represent spirits of the dead, and spirits representing natural phenomena.
Who wore African masks?
African masks were mostly worn by men because the spirits in the masks were seen as threatening to women.
What do the colors in African masks mean?
As they are worn across many different cultures, the colors of African masks have multiple meanings. However, several common meanings can be found for three colors: red, white and black.
- Red is often used to represent blood spilled during wars or childbirth.
- White signifies a mother’s milk or sperm, or the spirits of the ancestors.
- Black represents the unknown. (21)
How long have African masks been around?
African masks are one of the oldest known forms of art. The earliest evidence of them is in the form of rock art from 11,000 years ago but they may be even older than that. It’s just that they aren’t preserved in the archaeological record.
What is the oldest African mask?
The oldest surviving African masks come from the Egyptian archaeological site of Hierakonpolis. These ceramic funerary masks had holes behind the ears to fit them over the face of the deceased person.
How can I make my own African mask?
Making an African mask is a great art project for kids that also helps them learn about cultures.
You might want to print out some of these line drawings of masks and then paste them on a piece of cardboard and cut out holes for the eyes, mouth, and nose. (22)
You can decorate it with paint, feathers, cotton, yarn, buttons, and tinfoil.
Here is a video example of just one way to make your own African mask!
African masks are one of the richest and most diverse artistic traditions in the world. While they are found in many of the world's museums and art collections, these displays do not do justice to the important cultural role they play in performative rituals across much of the continent.