African Masks: Meaning & Designs

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  • 0:04 Why Use Masks?
  • 0:45 Meanings of African Masks
  • 1:58 African Mask Designs
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Some masks aren't simple objects that are meant to be worn for Halloween or other holidays. In African cultures, masks mean many things. This lesson explores meanings and designs of African masks.

Why Use Masks?

People use masks for many reasons. For fun, concealment, and to celebrate holidays, like Halloween and Mardi Gras. But in some places, masks are important cultural objects. This is certainly true of African masks.

African masks are made by cultures and tribes found throughout the vast African continent. They've been used for thousands of years by men and women for cultural, social and religious purposes. Some African masks might be humorous or respectful. Others might be purposely frightening. They could be made of materials like wood, bone, textiles, horn or feathers. But all have specific meaning to the person who made them and the tribe that uses them.

Meanings of African Masks

African masks are used in rituals and ceremonies. Usually, the mask is worn by a dancer or participant in the process rather than a spectator. Some masks are worn by men, while others by women. Some forms are worn by both genders. 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.

To African cultures, masks aren't playthings or decorations. 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.

There are as many specific meanings to African masks as there are designs for them. While we can't look at all possible design examples, let's explore a few major categories.

African Mask Designs

African 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.

Decorations on African masks range from simple to elaborate. Some are decorated with paint, carved surfaces, or adorned with materials like shells and feathers. Others are carved of wood but with the surface left plain.

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