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African Masks: Types & History

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.

Have you ever worn a mask? If so, why? Was it for fun or for a serious purpose? In this lesson, explore several types of African masks and learn about their history.

What Are the Purposes of African Masks?

Have you ever worn a mask? If so, you're not alone. Cultures all over the world have traditions related to masking. This is especially true of Africa, where masks have been found dating back thousands of years. African masks are fascinating objects that can be simple or elaborate. Africa, a diverse continent that's home to many tribes or groups of people, has a rich history of making and wearing masks.

Why do people wear masks? We think of them as fun items for parties and trick-or-treating, but in African cultures masks have serious purposes. These include use in rituals to ensure a good agricultural harvest; ceremonies to encourage human fertility; for burial or funeral practices; or for ancestor worship, sets of beliefs that connect to those who have died seeking their help and protection. Other masks are used to convey tribal cultural myths from one generation to another, or to connect the spirit world to the human one.

These masks are not decorations or art. Each has a specific reason for being. The cultural beliefs and practices of masking vary from tribe to tribe, and not all tribes make masks. Masking traditions are particularly strong in parts of West Africa, especially around the Ivory Coast; in areas of equatorial Africa like the Congo; and in Tanzania and Mozambique in East Africa. Within these areas, thousands of cultures have unique traditions. We can't discuss them all but let's look at several types of African masks and their history.

Basic Types of African Masks

But first, let's discuss the basic types of African masks.

You may think a mask just covers the front of your face. But among African cultures that make masks, there are six basic mask forms.

The most common include face masks that fit on the front of the face, often resembling a human or animal; helmet masks, which fit over the wearer's whole head like a helmet; and forehead masks, which work like hats that sit horizontally on top of the head with the wearer's face covered by fabric. The person wearing the mask bends over to make the mask look at others.

Other mask types include helmet crest masks, worn like a cap with the face visible; headdress masks, with human or animal figures mounted to a base or ring on the wearer's head; and shoulder masks that cover the head and top of the body.

History of African Masks

Now let's look at a few specific examples.

Baule Masks

The Baule people are a farming culture from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. They use masks in a daylong festival of dancing and celebration called goli. The tradition developed after 1910, adapted from neighboring cultures. The festival uses four kinds of masks. One represents a junior male called kple kple, often worn by younger members of the group. It has an abstract circular face, sometimes said to resemble the sun. Above the face are animal horns that represent the power and strength of the buffalo.

Example of a Baule mask. This face mask is of a kple kple and would be worn by younger male tribe members.
Example of Baule mask

Dan Masks

The Dan people, hunters and farmers also from an area around the Ivory Coast, are known for their finely carved wooden masks in the shape of human faces. Some peoples like the Dan believe in two realms: the human world and the spirit one. Within Dan culture, the masks are inhabited or powered by supernatural spirit forces called gle, and they are sacred objects used for protection and communication with the spirit world.

Example of a Dan mask. This face mask with carefully carved features is typical of the Dan people.
Example of a Dan culture mask

Bwa Masks

The Bwa people from the southern part of Burkino Faso use masks to connect to nature spirits, and the masks are often owned and used by extended family groups in performance rituals. Some masks are made of long planks of wood while others may resemble animals. All masks tend to be painted with elaborate geometric designs in contrasting colors.

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