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Tribal Art – African Masks

There is so much to be said about African Masks, however, today we will leave you some interesting facts about these stunning pieces with so many different hidden stories to tell. If only the could talk…

A Brief History of Masks from Africa

Traditional African masks have been worn and danced in for thousands of years. It stands to reason that understanding masks and their meaning is not an easy subject.

Masks play an important part in African Culture. African animal masks and many other styles of face mask are still used today. Different shaped eyes, beadwork, features and styles are unique to different cultures. Examples can be found in Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast and wide variety of African countries.

The use of masks is fading but traditional masks are used to this day in Africa. They are used for celebration, spiritual and ritual purposes.

Do African Masks have meaning?

Masks are symbols with complex functions. Some represent the spirit of animals; others depict aspects of the spirit realm. Many represent the spirits of ancestors. Masks can be used to tell of secret societies, of rituals and knowledge passed from one generation to the next. Many West African masks are a symbol of prestige and of forces beyond the understanding of everyday life.

Some are used in initiation ceremonies to mark the passing from youth into adulthood. Others bestow fertility, either to crops or hopeful parents.

Wooden masks from Africa are worn mostly by men. Feathers, shells and costumes create a sense of “other-worldliness”. The masked dance often marks the passing from one age group to another. These ritual and ceremonial events are an important part of tribal culture. Some African tribal mask designs are used for passing on cultural mores and values.

Tribal masks have had a huge influence on modern art. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse took inspiration from them.

What do Tribal Masks represent?

A tribal mask depicts a spirit or ancestor. They speak of hope, provide warnings and relay moral values. They are used to pass on sacred lore. Masks provide communication with spirits and ancestors. Ritual, memory, hopes and fears are all shared using these artworks.

Africa is the world’s most diverse continent. Masks of different cultures have different meanings. It’s difficult to sum that meaning up. Every mask represents a personality or its own. In wearing a mask, the dancer hides their own identity and assumes another.

In the west we tend to view a mask for its beauty. We pay little attention to the real meaning of a mask. Of how, in its original setting, it would have been feared, loved or imbued with supernatural powers.

The Diversity of Masks from Africa

There are all the kinds of masks to be found in Africa. The Dogon people of Mali have over 60 kinds of masks. The Mende of Sierra Leone, the Makonde of Tanzania and the Baga of Guinea all favour helmet masks. These sit on top of the head. Cloth masks, wooden masks, bronze masks and natural fibre masks can also be found.

More African Tribal Mask Facts

Many hand carved wooden masks are inspired by animals. Antelopes and primates are popular choices. Mythical animals serve as another source of masking tradition. Masks from the DRC (formerly Zaire) are clearly “cubist” in their form. The Makonde masks of Tanzania look scary.

African masks are both storytellers and keepers of secrets. We still have much to learn about this tradition. However, these traditions are fading, so too does the rich cultural tapestry of the continent.

Masks have so many stories to tell and will never give up all their secrets.

African Punu Mask from Gabon – Photograph from Google – Author unknown
African Dan Mask – Photograph from Google – Author unknown


African Kifwebwe Mask – Photograph from Google – Author unknown
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