How are they made? Most African ritual masks are carved from wood, though some are made from stone, copper, bronze, fabric, or pottery. Masks are often painted and decorated with animal hair, teeth, or horns, shells, straw, feathers, and other materials found in nature.
Purpose of Ritual MasksUsed in religious ceremonies, or to celebrate milestones such as: birth death/funerals weddings Initiation rites (ex. becoming a man) harvestingUsed to communicate with ancestors or spirits These cultures believe that when a person wears a mask, they transform into the spirit or person represented by the mask.
Who Can Wear the Masks?Only certain people areallowed to wear the masks -they are usually reservedfor men of a high socialstatus, or tribal elders.Some masks can only bework by those in power,such as chieftains, kings,witch-doctors, or warriors.
SymbolismAfrican masks are rarelyrealistic. Instead, they usesymbolism to express meaning,moral values, virtues, or ideals.In order to truly understandthe symbolic purpose of themask, it must been observed incontext - while used during atraditional dance - otherwisethe meaning is lost.
Common SubjectsAncestors often represented by a human skull, and contain sexual symbolsAnimals Can represent the actual animal, or a speciﬁc virtue (ex. strength, power, intelligence, etc.).Feminine Beauty depicts the culture’s ideal beauty often only men can wear these masks
NdeembaYaka peoples, Angola, Democratic Republic of theCongo This mask is worn by the initiation leaders during the initiation rites of boys. It represents the face of the Yaka ancestors who established the ceremonies. The mask symbolizes male sexuality and fertility.
Kanaga MaskDogon peoples, Mali This mask is made by the Dogon people in Mali. The symbol on the top of the mask is called Kanaga. It represents the primordial energy of the universe and the ﬁrst human beings. It is worn during the Dama dance. which opens a bridge to the supernatural world, allowing the dead to cross over into the realm of ancestors.
Mwana PwoChokwe peoples, Zaire and Angola This mask is worn during the initiation for boys. It represents a young female ancestor who died early. The dancer’s performance teaches good manners, and brings fertility to the women in the village.
ChiwaraBambara peoples, Mali The discovery of agriculture is credited to the hero Chi Wara, a half antelope, half human ﬁgure who came to earth to teach humans to sow crops, and thus is honored at both sowing and harvest festivals. Female Chiwara masks are denoted by the presence of a baby antelope and straight horns. Male Chiwara masks have bent horns and a phallus.
Inﬂuences on Western ArtMasks are one of the elements of African art that have mostevidently inﬂuenced European and Western art in general; inthe 20th century, artistic movements such as cubism, fauvismand expressionism have often taken inspiration from the vastand diverse heritage of African masks.Inﬂuences of this heritage can also be found in othertraditions such as South- and Central American maskedCarnival parades.