A Brief History of Masks from Africa

african dan maskTraditional African masks have been worn and danced in for thousands of years. It stands to reason that understanding masks and their meaning is no easy subject. We’ve put together a short article to give you some grasp of this vast subject. We explore the use of masks, their origins and, most importantly, their meaning.

Masks play an important part in African Culture. African animal masks and many other styles of face mask are still used today. Different shaped eyes, beadwork, features and styles are unique to different cultures. Examples can be found in Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast and wide variety of African countries.

The use of masks is fading but traditional masks are used to this day in Africa. They are use for celebration, spiritual and ritual purposes. The mask you see for sale may have taken a important part in the cultural life of a community. On the other hand, it is equally likely to be a product of the African arts and crafts industry. You will need to know your stuff before you can make an informed decision on which mask to buy.

Info About African Masks

Masks are symbols with complex functions. Some represent the spirit of animals, others depict aspects of the spirit realm. Many represent the spirits of ancestors. Masks can be used to tell of secret societies, of rituals and knowledge passed from one generation to the next. Many West African masks are a symbol of prestige and of forces beyond the understanding of everyday life.
Some are used in initiation ceremonies to mark the passing from youth into adulthood. Others bestow fertility, either to crops or hopeful parents. Most mark identify; a sense of belonging to a clan, tribe or extended family.

African Mask Information

Wooden masks from Africa are worn mostly by men. Feathers, shells and costumes create a sense of “other-worldliness”. The masked dance often marks the passing from one age group to another. These ritual and ceremonial events are an important part of tribal culture. Some African tribal mask designs are used for passing on cultural mores and values. These groups are often referred to as “secret societies”. The more striking the image created by the mask- the more powerful the message that is shared.

Masks as “Primitive Art”

Punu mask Gabon

Masked dances are not unique to Africa. Go to the Carnival of Venice in Italy and see many thousands wearing old wooden masks. Yet the European perception is that the African masking is primitive. In contrast masking in Venice is thought to be the height of sophistication!
The african artist who carved the mask you are thinking of buying is most likely unknown. And yet that carver probably spent many years learning his craft. They are masters of their craft, having been passed their skills from father to son.

European art dealers often refer to African face masks as “primitive art”. This is European bigotry. African tribal masks are not primitive. Neither are the 20th century and older cultures from which they originate. African tribal masks have had a huge influence on modern art. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse took inspiration from them. The bold features and geometric patterns of masks were the touch paper of modern art. The irony is that the “cubist form” is seen as “high art”, and yet the masks which served as that inspiration remain “primitive art”.

Africa is the cradle of civilization. African masking provides a rich wealth of tradition. How often to we think of Egyptian art as African? But let’s get back to masks. We will explore African art bias another time.

The Meaning of Tribal Masks

A tribal mask depicting a spirit or ancestor is a kind of lens. It’s a lens through which we can see and learn about a variety of concepts. They speak of hope, provide warnings and relay moral values. They are used to pass on sacred lore. Masks provide communication with spirits and ancestors. They are doorways into concepts beyond the realm of the everyday. Ritual, memory, hopes and fears are all shared using these artworks. They same is true of African sculpture. Once displayed as a “wall art” the mask loses much of its true meaning. They are meant to be worn.

Africa is the world’s most diverse continent. Masks of different cultures have different meanings. It’s difficult to sum that meaning up. Every mask represents a personality or its own. In wearing a mask, the dancer hides their own identity and assumes another. It’s a kind of lesson designed to dismay, teach, provoke and instil wonder.

In the west we tend to view a mask for its beauty. We pay little attention to the real meaning of a mask. Of how, in its original setting, it would have been feared, loved or imbued with supernatural powers.

The Diversity of Masks from Africa

kifwebwe mask

We can’t begin to sum up all the kinds of masks to be found in Africa. That would take a much longer article than this one. There are over 300 languages spoken in the Congo alone. Language groups divide into smaller tribes and clans. The subject of Africa’s material culture is a vast one.

The Dogon people of Mali have over 60 kinds of masks. The Mende of Sierra Leone, the Makonde of Tanzania and the Baga of Guinea all favour helmet masks. These sit on top of the head. Cloth masks, wooden masks, bronze masks and natural fibre masks can be found.

Mask designs are as varied as the mind can imagine!

More African Tribal Mask Facts

Many hand carved wooden masks are inspired by animals. Antelopes and primates are popular choices. Mythical animals serve as another source of masking tradition. Masks from the DRC (formerly Zaire) are clearly “cubist” in their form. The Makonde masks of Tanzania look scary. No surprise then that they tell stories of enslavement and raids by foreign invaders.

When considering facts about African masks think about how handcrafted masks are a window into the soul of humanity. They are both storytellers and keepers of secrets. We still have much to learn about this fast-dwindling tradition. Perhaps time to understand African masks is running out. The skills to fashion the art form are being lost. And as these traditions fade, so too does the rich cultural tapestry of the continent. As you build your mask collection consider that Africa has long been overtaken by our western culture.

Mask have a million stories to tell and will, no doubt never give up all of their secrets. But learning about them is half the fun, the best part is enjoying their beauty.

See our African masks for sale. Or for more info about African tribal masks please subscribe to our newsletter from the African Odyssey home page.