African Masks: Importance and Meanings

Threer Africa

African masks are extremely important cultural elements for the diverse peoples of Africa, especially for sub-Saharan countries in the southern Sahara desert.

There are many types, meanings, uses and materials that make up these pieces, and the same people can have several different masks.

These objects are part of the enormous wealth of the African continent, and became known in the West, largely because of the European artistic avant-garde. Some artists of these currents have come to integrate clear references of African art into their own works.

African masks and rituals

Despite being recognized as artistic objects, African masks actually represent much more than mere props for the populations who wear them. They are ritualistic symbols that have the power to bring people closer to spirituality.

These pieces are produced as essential instruments in various rites, such as initiation rituals, births, funerals, celebrations, marriages, healing of the sick and other important occasions.

In general, the rituals also include music and dance, as well as their own clothing. A “magical” atmosphere is created to transform participants wearing masks into representations of ancestors, spirits, animals, and gods.

Check out a video of the Dogon people in Mali during ritual.

Types and Meanings of African Masks

African masks have different meanings depending on the occasion, the culture and the people who wear them.

Some have abstract shapes with geometric patterns, such as the pieces used by the Bwa people located in Burkina Faso. For them, this type of prop is directly related to the forest spirits, invisible beings.

The Senufo people of Côte d’Ivoire, however, have masks that value patience and pacifism, expressed through half-closed eyes.

Unlike them, the Grebo, also from Côte d’Ivoire, wear masks that have wide, round eyes. This kind of look is related to a state of attention and angry attitude.

There are also masks that act as animal symbols, bringing out the characteristics of these animals, such as buffalo strength, for example.

Some cultures still use female representations in their masks, such as the Punu culture in Gabon, the Baga people, Guinea-Bissau and the Idia in Benin.

Production and materials of African masks

There are many materials used as a support for the manufacture of these pieces. The most common of these is wood.

In addition to wood, they can be made with leather, fabrics, ivory, ceramics and metals such as bronze and copper. Other elements such as hair and horns can be added.

Respect for these objects is enormous and the craftsman who produces them must be an initiate of the tribe. He performs rituals so that he is allowed to create these pieces, which will be a kind of portrait of the collective yearnings.