African Masks: Types, Meanings, History, Designs, Interesting Facts

African masks can be considered one of the greatest works of art in Africa. They are made of different materials which include leather, fabric and various types of wood.

They are a widely sought after part of the different African cultures by art collectors. In fact, some of the most impressive ones take up space in museums and art galleries all over the world.

Masking ceremonies are the best way to experience the glory of African masks. The ceremonies have religious and ceremonial value and can even give the admirer a greater insight into the ideas and values that the makers of the mask express in them.

As has been mentioned, various tribes in Africa have their own masks and some of these masks are ritual and ceremonial. They, therefore, have types, meanings behind them and even things to be noted about wearing them.

African Masks History, Meanings

African masks have a rich varied history. They have been used in African rituals and ceremonies for a long time. It is believed that the earliest masks originated during the Paleolithic era. They were and still are believed to represent the spirits of animals or ancestors and mythological heroes. The work of the African tribal artists who made the African masks was believed to be deeply spiritual and the artists were highly respected in their societies.

Some examples of known African masks and their meanings:

Funeral Masks: Used by the Bete and Yoruba people, these masks have the main purpose of keeping sorcerers (feared by the Bete) at bay. The Yoruba people believe that the masks embody the spirit of deceased ones and so feel that a person wearing such masks could speak to the souls of the dead.

Guro Mask: From the native people of Ivory Coast who believe that the Mask represents the spirit of ‘Gu’ the wife of a supernatural entity.

Punu Mask: A mask associated with the Gabon people, it is painted white and is thought to represent the spirit of ancestors. The Gabon people wore it during celebrations and festivals.

Cameroon Mask: Carved from a single piece of wood, the Cameroon mask symbolizes plenty and privilege and this is depicted with an open mouth and the full cheeks of the mask.

Ngil Mask: These masks are considered important in Ghana’s history. The Fang tribe used to don them to initiate new members into the male secret society. Along with initiation, the persecution of wrongdoers was also carried out during such ceremonies.

Types Of African Masks

Face mask: Face masks are used throughout Africa. They are the most common mask type and are secured to the face in a variety of ways. These can be a string, band, secured with a scarf or even held on by a wig.

African masks

Cap crests: Worn on the forehead leaving the wearer’s face exposed.

Headdress masks: They are set on a base that sits on top of their head. This type of maks is most known with the Bambara who are the largest ethnic group in Mali.

Shoulder masks: These large and heavy masks seat on the wearer’s shoulders.

Helmet masks: Fit over the entire head and are normally carved from one section of a tree trunk.

Helmet crests: They do not fit over the entire head but are rather worn like a hat, leaving the face exposed.

African Masks Designs

The designs of African masks are based off two things; traditions dictated by social and religious beliefs and the individual vision of the African tribal artist. The designs celebrate abstract qualities like beauty, courage, mischief, and nobility. For these reasons the designs feature detailed composition focused on achieving a symmetrical arrangement of lines, shape, and form that evoke a feeling of these qualities. African masks are also highly textured. Fine detail and a quality finish are highly prized and represent different things. For instance, a rough surface may suggest fear and evil and smooth surfaces beauty and virtue.

The shapes of African masks are also a big part of their design. They can be rectangular, elongated, heart-shaped, oval, circular or even a combination of shapes. Geometric patterns are sometimes used to distinguish male from female masks. For instance, complex braided hairstyles often adorn the head of female masks.

Interesting Facts About African Masks

  • African masks are pieces of art but are made to be used. They are employed in various ceremonies and social events that range from weddings to the funeral of a respected person.
  • Masks are likely to have a spiritual meaning or even a connection that is widely touted and believed in. For instance, it is generally believed that the individual who wears the mask transforms into a spirit.
  • Making African masks requires great skill and knowledge of the artist as relates to spiritual matters. For this reason, the spiritual lessons held by masks are often passed down from father to son.

See Also: 40 Ghanaian Proverbs About Different Aspects Of Life You Should Know

  • The masks are designed with human or animal characteristics or a mixture of both.
  • Artists who make African masks are given a special status in their communities.
  • The masks can be decorated with things like animal hair, feathers, straw, horns, teeth, and seashells.
  • People who are allowed to wear masks are only a select few from the tribe in question. It is a thing of honour and most of the time, only men or elders in the tribe are given the honour.
  • Masks are made out of wood, metals (bronze and copper), fabric, stone and some others.


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