Masks can be found among nearly all cultures around the world. In Africa, they are
among the most known elements of their traditional art. Masking traditions of various
African peoples remain as one of their most important religious, ritual, and social activities.
They are most common among cultures in west and central Africa.
A “mask” is defined, in most cases, as an object that conceals or disguises
In African cultures, the mask is comprised of a full costume that covers the
entire body, along with “props” that accompany the costume. Amulets, medicines,
or other protective devices (animal fur, feathers, teeth, or antlers) intensify the power
of the mask. The part which conceals the face is only a small part of the “mask”.
The headpiece (which is the part featured in most museum mask displays) is
frequently made of wood and at times has cloth or raffia fibers attached to its rim.
They can be categorized by how they are worn: helmet masks cover the entire head,
crest masks are worn on top of the head, face masks cover the face, forehead masks
rest on the forehead, and there are even shoulder masks that rest on the maskers’
There are also different types of masks which can be defined by their physical
features. Anthropomorphic masks depict human form, zoologic masks depict animal
forms, or composite masks which contain elements of both humans and animals and
are usually inspired by myth and dreams.
Composite masks usually represent supernatural creatures or nature spirits with
amazing abilities. Considered dangerous, they are mostly used in closed men’s societies
and are stored in the societies’ houses or in shrines outside of the village (accessible
only to initiates).
Masks may represent ancestors or serve as “houses” or containers of unseen
forces or bush spirits. They may also act as judges, policemen, and educators. Once
worn, the masker is transformed into another being that moves, behaves, and “speaks”
as the mask.
In areas of Africawith masking traditions, masks dance in dramatic performances
or masquerades . They occur in important occasions such as funerals, initiations, or for
entertainment. Masquerades involve music, dance, acrobatics, rituals, sacrifice, or
prayer with an audience that interacts through call and response. The masker and
the mask become one entity as the masker moves as the mask would, with dances
that are precisely prescribed or improvised. Masks also “speak” and sing in a secret
language or sounds (understood by the initiated), or through musical instruments that
usually accompany them.