The Cultural Significance of African Masks

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

Masks have been used in African societies perhaps since the beginning of millennia and can be found in many African cultures if not all. But as civilization comes many traditions tend to become forgotten, obsolete and sometimes completely wiped out. Although, masks have not yet been forgotten or obsolete, however, we rarely know much of their true purpose, meaning and significance compare to the impact they had in more traditional and primitive societies.

One of the more succinct description of masks I came across is from the late Joseph Campbell who’s work in mythology, comparative religion and primitive traditions is one of the most exquisite works you will ever find. Campbell points out that all cultures create "masks", which are the names and images for God, and they serve as metaphors for an "inexpressible transcendence, the being beyond all being and the idea beyond all thought".

Masks are important cultural objects and this is certainly true of African masks. In African folklore, Masks are an instrument of ritual, and without the costume, dancer, music, gathering of the tribe, and sacred place, the mask become meaningless. African masks are made by cultures and tribes found throughout the vast African continent. They've been used for thousands of years both by men and women for cultural, social and religious purposes. Some African masks might be humorous or respectful. Others might be purposely frightening. African masks are made from wood, bronze, brass, copper, ivory, terracotta, glazed pottery, leather, raffia and textiles. They are often decorated with cowry shells, horns, cloth, colored beads, bone, feathers, paper, animal skins and vegetable fibre. However, many African masks are made of wood, perhaps because trees are in plentiful supply in the forest belt where most masks are produced. But all have specific meaning to the person who made them and the tribe that uses them.

There are a variety of uses for masks, which include rituals of myth, creation, and hero worship, as well as fertility rituals for increase, agricultural festivities, funerals or burials, ancestor cults, initiations, and entertainment, all of which prove that their usage has been extensive for hundreds of years by African tribes (Black 25).

The masks come in different shapes and styles. They might be round, oval, rectangular, or combine several geometric forms. There are three basic types of masks, categorized for how they fit on the head and face. One type of mask covers the face, much like old-fashioned plastic Halloween masks familiar to us. Another form is called a helmet mask, which are shaped like a large helmet, cover the entire head. A third type sits on the top of the head like a crest, allowing the wearer's face to remain visible. Masks enable actors to shift identity while playing multiple roles (Brockett, 1978, p. 32). Masks assume different forms to serve different functions. The face mask is worn on the face; the attachment mask is worn on the body, clipped on the apparel or hung on walls, doorposts and similar places; while the headdress is worn on the head. References to mask in this discussion alternate between these three major types, while the word “form” refers to materials and styles employed for mask-production.

Meanings of African Masks

To African cultures, masks aren't playthings, decorations or even arts par se. They might serve an important role in rituals or ceremonies to ensure a good harvest, address tribal needs in time of peace or war, or convey spiritual presences in initiation rituals or burial ceremonies. Some masks represent the spirits of deceased ancestors. Other symbolize totem animals, creatures important to a certain family or group. In some cultures, like the Kuba culture of Zaire, masks represent specific figures in tribal mythology, like a king or a rival to the ruler.

The usage of African masks in rituals and ceremonies is perhaps the most common. Usually, the mask is worn by a dancer or participant in the process rather than a spectator. In general, masks tend to represent spirits or beings important to the ritual in which the mask in used. The wearer of the mask is often believed to be able to communicate to the being symbolized by it, or to be possessed by who or what the mask represents.

In a paper by Esekong H. Andrew titled: “Configurations of The African Mask: Forms, Functions and the Transcendental” Andrew argued on the cultural implications of masks versus the scientific implication. And in the end, he lamented that it will be rather wise to understand masks from their stylistic nuances determined by cultural beliefs of the producing community or societies. Many scholars have deliberated on the potency of masks, especially in African traditions ( Layiwola, 2000; Lewis, 1974; Cazeneuve, 1972 ). The deliberations are based on actual performances where mask-donning performers assume supernatural roles. Ekpo performances of the Ibibios and Gelede of the Yorubas, ( both in Nigeria ) are proven cases where masks induce transcendent activities. Still, spiritual claims attributed to masks and mask-using performances have been swiftly dismissed as a façade and a notional departure from the traditional role of the mask. While skeptics have room for critical differentiation, it must be noted that some masks, through their users, actually exude unusual “spiritual” tendencies. How can one explain an instance where an Ekpo masker, using Nkubia or Anyam mask, instantly enters into a state of frenzy upon donning the mask or an instance where a man using Gelede mask begins the process of mediation between the living and the dead and goes into rituals of cleansing?

In many African cultures, it is believed that the spiritual potency of woods used for mask carvings are transferable to the user who, on acquisition of these powers begins to exude magical qualities and are esteemed as agents for the accomplishing of supernatural acts. But, even if masks and their production materials were not inherently potent in spiritual terms, the psychology of mask-usage may also induce the user to assume different personalities. At the end of the day, whether (or not) the masquerade’s ritual transformation is achieved through chemical or psychological inducement is quite irrelevant. What is vital is that upon donning a mask, the wearer becomes a partner of the character she or he is impersonating. The masker undergoes a psychic change and, as in a trance, assumes a spirit character depicted by the mask. Layiwola deliberates further on the masker and his assumed personality in the context of Gelede performance of the Yorubas: A man, hitherto a young fledging in the community, attains the status of a god or an ancestor under the mask. Women and children and households, including the peers of his mother kneel before him for benediction and prayers ... He becomes a persona, a numinous invocation with a transient personality. He lasts only for the duration of the enactment. At that instance, the unkown is domesticated and brought to the realms of the living (Layiwola, 2000, p.3 ).

The personality of the actor gives the mask its kinetic quality but that personality takes on an added metaphysical dimension. He dares in his role by playing the god, the deity or the demon. In losing his own personality, the masked dancer surrenders his will and destiny to some other external force. As Cazeneuve’s opines: To wear a mask is something very different from a game. It is among the most serious and weighty acts in the world: a direct and immediate contact, and even an intimate participation, with the being of the invisible world, from whom one expects vital favours. The individuality of the actor gives place momentarily to that of the spirit which he represents; or rather they are fused together. (Cazeneuve,1972, p.45 ).

Masks are true cultural treasures that we still have so much to learn and uncover about them. If you enjoyed this post feel free to let us know and do share with us additional information and stories about masks. Also, visit our google arts and culture page for a collection and selection of masks and their significance in different cultures around the continent.

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