Masks were an important part of the tradition of different African tribes. These masks were associated with different kinds of rituals and ceremonies and were an integral part of the tribal culture. Here is a short account of their history.
The African masks are made of wood. The piece of wood used for making a mask is first allowed to dry. If the wood cracks, it is not considered suitable for making masks. A tool called ‘azde’ is used for sculpting the wooden masks.
The history of African masks can be traced back to Paleolithic times. These masks hold great importance in the African culture. In olden days, masks were used in many different ceremonies. These masks were made from metals, wood, fabric, etc. Their unique designs and most importantly, the idea behind making them has earned African masks an important place in famous art galleries around the world. Art history connoisseurs and collectors are equally interested in collecting such masks. The world famous painter Picasso came across an African mask in the year 1907 and was amazed by the design and meaning associated with it.
History of African Masks
African masks have quite a long tradition and many different meanings are associated with them. These masks are mainly used for depicting the moral and psychological characteristics of an individual. The Africans used to wear such masks in 3 different ways. Today, the details about history of African masks are available in bits and pieces. Here is an attempt to collate the useful facts on this topic.
• Most of the masks were used just like the regular face masks.
• Some of these masks looked like helmets i.e. they covered the face and head.
• Few of these masks were used only to cover the head.
Credit: Davric (photo)/
via Wikimedia Commons (PD)
Credit: Karl Heinrich (photo)
/Wikimedia Commons (PD)
Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen (photo)/
Wikimedia Commons (PD)
• In the west African country of Nigeria, masks with animal-shaped headdresses were used by local tribes. The wood obtained from hollowed tree trunks was used for making helmet-shaped masks. The tribes of Sierra Leone made use of such masks.
• The Body Mask and Coon Mask were used by people from Tanzania and South Africa respectively. People used to wear the Body Mask along with a matching face mask; the Body Mask, also known as Belly Mask was carved out from tree trunks. The ‘Coon’ is a relatively modern mask in the history of African masks; this is because it was brought to use at the time of emancipation of slaves in 1838. Specialty of the Coon Mask is that it is hand-painted.
• Nowadays, the ceremonies associated with masks are not followed with the same fervor and enthusiasm as in olden times. The influence of different cultures, colonialism, civil wars, slave trade, etc. have altered the social fabric of Africa. Breakdown of traditional economies due to colonial rule has had an adverse effect on the food production systems and thereby, the culture of tribes of Africa. Although mask ceremonies are celebrated in today’s times, they are not held as frequently as it used to be in olden times. Loss of tribal identity is the main reason behind the decline in popularity of mask ceremonies.
The history and meanings associated with different types of African masks are given below. These facts should also help us understand more about the different traditions of Africa.
The Cameroon mask which is carved from a single piece of wood symbolizes plenty and privilege; this is depicted with an open mouth and full cheeks of the mask. Some of the Cameroon masks also come with a sculpted headdress; the headdress depicts ‘spiders’ which stand for wisdom and privilege.
The Mitsogo Mask is characterized by a whitened face. The mouth, ears and nose are colored reddish-brown. The Mitsogo people to whom this mask belongs come from the mountainous regions of central Gabon. Ancestors of the Mitsogo people were the residents of northern Gabon.
People from the ‘Fang’ tribe used to wear the Ngil Mask. This mask was used to initiate new members into the male secret society. Along with initiation, the persecution of wrongdoers was also carried out during such ceremonies. The Fang people indulged into hunting and agriculture. Fang masks are considered to be of great importance in the history of Ghana.
This mask was used by the Bete and Yoruba people. The belief/purpose behind wearing such masks was to keep sorcerers (feared by the Bete) at bay. The Yoruba people of Nigeria believed that Funeral Masks embodied the spirit of the deceased ones. They also believed that a person wearing such masks could speak to the souls of the dead.
The native people of Ivory Coast used to wear this mask. The Guro Mask represents the spirit of ‘Gu’. One of the characters from African tribal mythology, ‘Gu’ was the wife of a supernatural entity.
The Baule Masks were used at the time of harvest festivals and dances. These masks also found place in funerals where they were used for distinguishing important guests from others.
A Bete mask named Nyaba was used during funerals; history of this mask can be traced back to the period of Gla society.
Ivory Coast is the origin of this mask. The Ligbi mask is characterized by a rectangular-shaped mouth and wings on the sides.
Origin of the Goma Mask can be traced in what is today’s Democratic Republic of Congo. Inhabitants of the region surrounding the Lake Tanganyika used the Goma mask.
The Punu Mask is associated with the Gabon people and is painted white. This mask represents the spirit of ancestors. The Gabon people used to wear this mask during celebrations and festivals. Use of Punu Masks in the masquerade dance was a practice being commonly followed.
Significance of African Masks
The African masks are generally used to represent the spirit of ancestors, deities and mythological creatures. Masks are worn during different ceremonies by dancers to represent these spirits and deities. People used to wear such masks on different occasions like crop harvesting, war preparations, weddings, initiations, etc. The dance ceremonies associated with masks were accompanied by the music played with traditional African musical instruments. Few other rituals during which masks were used are listed below.
• Honoring the kings
• Preparation of War
• Criminal Execution
• Rites of Passage
• Fertility Rites
The African masks, were used in rituals and also for assigning qualities like wisdom (Chilongola Mask), courage (Kamau Mask), strength (Runihura Mask), love (Thandiwe Mask), independence (Boipuso Mask), etc. to people wearing them.
The African masks are amongst the popular forms of fine arts in the world. An in-depth study of the history of African masks should help us understand more about the rich culture and traditions associated with different communities of Africa.