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African Art: Masks



Masks have had an extraordinary role in the cultural life of African peoples for thousands of years. Of the approximately one thousand African tribes, there are few who do not create ritual masks. Masks are used to celebrate every spiritual occasion from birth to death.

The mask is one element of a larger cultural context that includes costume, dance and rituals performed for specific events.  The dancer using a particular mask assumes the identity of the spirit it represents to communicate its message to the people. 

Masks are used in the transmission of societal values and tribal history. In Africa, where there are more than one thousand ethnic and tribal groups, masks have been used for thousands of years for religious and ceremonial purposes.

Masks play an important role in all ceremonial occasions in African cultures. Masks are most frequently worn in ritual dances and processions. They are also carved into a variety of every-day objects. Masks enhance the relationship between the wearer and the spiritual power represented by the mask. Every major event in the life of the African tribesman is celebrated with masks.

African masks have great spiritual significance. They are crafted not as literal representations of the subject, but are meant to convey spiritual power. Masks are a part of the tribe’s shared beliefs in the ancestral powers that rule the universe and influence their lives. Each African culture has developed a lexicon of mask designs that the artist uses to capture the associated spirit and thus properly convey the story of the mask to the next generation.

Mask Types


Facemasks are the most numerous in African cultures. They usually represent the human face with design elements of associated spiritual significance. Facemasks are usually flat and depict only the face, not the head, since they are to be worn in front of the face of the dancer.


Helmet masks, usually carved from one piece of wood, are made to rest on the shoulders and cover the head of the wearer.

Headdress masks are made to be worn above the head. When combined with costume, the headdress completely hides the identity of the wearer.


Mask Designs 

The purpose of the mask usually dictates the design elements the artist will use. They are frequently grouped as:


Anthropomorphic - masks with predominately human features that personify ancestral spirits


Zoomorphic - masks with predominately animal features that personify the supernatural power of the animal kingdom,


Theriomorphic - masks with combinations of human and animal design elements that symbolize a combination of spiritual powers



Most of the masks in the Lynn University collection are of carved wood. Many have overlay materials such as bronze or fabrics; many are wood with shells, iron, grass, fabric and feathers. The mask will often be colored with the use of natural pigments like plant juices and oils, animal fat, blood, kaolin and mud. Mask making is a specialized art in Africa whose practitioners occupy a very respected place in the society. The wood carvers who create these objects undergo an apprenticeship that ensures the design integrity of the mask. African spirituality includes the belief that deities may transform objects and that both the material and the artist’s tools may impart spiritual powers to the mask.

Uses of Masks
African tribes rely on rituals to convey and reinforce social mores and tribal history. Rituals usually include dances or processions of those individuals who are responsible for ensuring the continuity of the social mores from generation to generation. Although the content of the ritual varies among tribal groups, common human events inspire similar rituals throughout Africa.

Fertility rituals honor the deities who ensure continuing generations of the tribe through human, animal and agricultural fertility.


Initiation rituals are ceremonies that mark transitions from adolescence to adulthood and progressions through various stages of societal membership.


Funeral rituals: One of the most important uses of masks is African cultures is at the end of life. During funeral ceremonies, masks are used to communicate with ancestral spirits on behalf of the recently departed to insure their transition into the spirit world. A variety of masks may be used to evoke the deities who will protect the dead from evil along the path to the spirit world.


Social behavior is a predominant motive for masks in African society. Conveying moral and ethical codes is frequently the responsibility of secret societies that seek to guide their members’ behavior. Those in the society who judge others’ behavior wear masks that evoke ancestral wisdom. Masks are also worn during many social occasions where prescribed behaviors are important including royal celebrations, weddings, and arrival of important visitors, political debates, and tax collection. Masks are also used as identification or passports when traveling through different regions.

Guardians: In African cultures, an important role for secret societies and tribal leaders is safeguarding the community. Threats to the well being of individuals and the community are confronted by evoking powerful spirits through the use of masks in rituals that seek the assistance of the supernatural in overcoming the threat.













Facing the Mask



African Faces, African Figures









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