African Tribal Masks

by Cristian I

Facts about the African Culture

When you think about African culture, tribal masks are often among the first things that come to mind. Although these African tribal masks have become popular art pieces in Western culture over the years, they’re also known for their essential role in social customs, spirituality, and traditions across numerous tribes.

Each tribal mask offers a specific purpose based on the local culture. You can find them shaped like animals, various spirits, and other essential elements to the tradition’s history. If you have an authentic mask, you’ve got something that potentially links you to the spirit world.

Although every mask is unique, you can find some common ground with the various facts that we’ve come to know about this interesting part of humanity. Here’s an in-depth look at this cultural phenomenon.

The Tribe
The Tribe
Chewa African Mask © Hans Hillewaert
Chewa African Tribal Mask © Hans Hillewaert

List of the Top Facts About African Tribal Masks to Know

What is the exact function of an African mask?

Artists like Andre Derain and Pablo Picasso sought to answer that question because they were attracted to the abstract and bold designs found on these items.

 Pablo Picasso - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Pablo Picasso – Museum of Modern Art, New York

When you look at a traditional mask, it should be seen through the lens of a ceremonial costume. Even when they combine different features, the purpose is to bring the ancestral spirits alive or to gain control over the balance of good and evil.

If we understand how and why they are made, it helps us all get to know these cultures a little better.

1. Most masks aren’t made without at least one sacrifice.

Although you can find African tribal masks sold today from plastic, metal, and other components, an artisans’ traditional material was wood. Since it was inherently dangerous to chop down trees back then, it was not unusual for a chicken or another animal to get sacrificed as a way to ensure personal safety.

The mask-makers were also required in some tribes to appease the iron gods. After taking the animal’s blood and other materials needed for the tribute, he would head to a shrine located near his workplace. That’s where the carving would take place, ensuring that shape and texture were as intended.

Most masks were made using an adze. These traditional tools are often highly collectible in their own right.

Courtesy of the Livingstone Museum, Republic of Zambia

2. African masks often use natural materials.

Mask makers would sometimes carve a mask, paint it, and call it a day. They would also use different natural materials to decorate it, including feathers, bones, skins, horns, and shells. If someone found ivory dropped from an elephant or sourced after a meal, that material would often get included.

When coloring the mask with paint, the craftsman would use natural dyes. Most of the items were made from tree bark, leaves, clay, and seeds.

If plant materials were used to create the African masks, it would often include raffia, leaves, straw, or sometimes cotton-like materials. Some tribes fashioned them with human hair and teeth.

When the mask needed some extra extravagance, the maker might include certain metals, terracotta, glazed items, or beads.

Tribal Mask
African Tribal Mask

3. The masks represent part of the culture’s rite of passage.

When the tribal cultures would adorn masks for their various festivals, traditions, celebrations, or spiritual encounters, the result was somewhat comparable to what you’d find in colonial secret societies. Most of them would start by separating the men from the women.

It was not unusual for these rituals to play out when a child reached puberty. They would use these circumstances to talk about social manners, sexual awareness, and other health needs.

They often played a role in celebrating the life cycle of the planet. You’d see them during funerals, weddings, and during the harvest season.

African Festival
African Festival – Credit: Africasconnect.com

4. Mask wearing creates a new identity.

If someone dons a traditional African mask, it is essential to remember that most cultures don’t see that person becoming the representation of their appearance. The makers aren’t trying to represent animals or people, dead or alive. When a person wears this facial covering, they no longer possess a personality of their own.

That’s because the belief is that a spirit occupies the mask instead. Whatever the person wearing it says or does get attributed to that force.

What the individual spirits represent depends on the tribal culture. Some of them see the outcomes as a chance to speak with the ancestors, while others think of the moment as the time when they can chat with someone who hasn’t been born yet.

African Mask 3
African Mask

5. Wearing a mask was sometimes a shaming event.

When Kamuzu Banda became Malawi’s first president, he embraced the idea of mask ceremonies and masquerades to keep people in line. Some cultures believed that putting on this facial covering created enough anonymity that someone could mention all of a person’s failings without consequence. Since this encounter happened in a public forum, the goal was to use moral weaknesses and bad habits to keep people in line.

Banda used them quite successfully to keep his political critics in line for quite a while. When his dictatorship started coming to an end, his opponents used the same tactics to rob the family of their political power eventually.

Kamuzu Banda and The Queen
Kamuzu Banda and The Queen

6. African masks may have originated in Ancient Egypt.

Although we associate Egypt more with the Middle East today, it is still part of the African continent. With its possession of the Sinai Peninsula, it also has a presence in Asia. Some of the oldest surviving masks that we’ve seen from the region come from this ancient civilization.

Over 100 million people live in Egypt, making it the most populous country in that region. You can see different animal shapes with the masks from centuries ago, ranging from jackals to falcons.

We also know that priests would wear masks during funerary rituals and other important life events. Although most have not survived, the fact that we have several entire pieces that are over 4,000 years old is a testament to the artist’s craftsmanship.

Egyptian mask

7. Most authentic African masks are not in Africa.

In 2017, France’s government commissioned a report to look at the public collections of African art that were in the country.

The final observations noted that about 90% of the current levels of African art were held in museums outside of the continent. A typical collection or exhibit in any country was under 3,000 pieces. In Europe or the United States, that number could be ten times higher.

After seeing that information, the French president requested a complete return of the African items, including masks, that were on public display. Resistance to that idea has been fierce, even though questions about gathering the items during the colonial period continue to linger.

Repatried Mask by Sindika Dokolo - COURTESY SINDIKA DOKOLO FOUNDATION
Repatried Mask by Sindika Dokolo – COURTESY SINDIKA DOKOLO FOUNDATION

8. Some masks represent moral values.

When you look at the African tribal masks from specific cultures, you can find many of them incorporate detailed designs to represent a moral value. If you see the half-closed eyes of someone from the Senufo, it symbolizes patience, self-control, and a peaceful attitude.

The tribes in Sierra Leone see a more petite mouth and eyes as representing humility. When the forehead is broad and protruding, it speaks of wisdom.

When you see the masks from Gabon, you’ll notice that the mouths and chins tend to be much larger than in other regional designs. This design element represents strength and authority.

With the Grebo, they have their masks carved with round eyes to represent anger or alertness. If the design has a straight nose, that means there is an unwillingness to retreat from imposing circumstances.

Sierra Leone Wood Mask
Sierra Leone Wood Mask

9. Some masks incorporate multiple animal and human traits.

When mask makers would infuse different animal and human traits into the same design, it was often seen as a product of high status or exceptional virtue. Although these items were unusual, the Poro would have merge three different dangerous symbols to create a stunning outcome.

It was often crocodile teeth, warthog fangs, and antelope horns.

For the Songye in the Congo basin, they would use the mouth of an aardvark, a rooster’s crest, owl feathers, okapi stripes, and crocodile teeth for the same purpose.

With the Punu people, you could see this attribute mixed with masks that included a thin chin, long eyelashes, and traditional cheek ornaments to represent greater beauty. It was often the men who would wear those facial coverings.

Songye African Mask
Songye African Mask

A Final Thought About Wearing African Tribal Masks

African tribal masks were a prominent part of the sub-Saharan cultures across the continent. They serve an essential role in various ceremonies and rituals to ensure peace, prosperity, and health.

Although the mask makers might not imbue the facial coverings with a specific person or animal, many cultures see them representing their ancestors. Some of them symbolize totem animals that might be crucial to particular groups or families.

In Zaire’s Kuba culture, the masks represent specific figures from the tribe’s mythology, such as a chief or an enemy.

Many cultures see the African tribal mask as something beautiful and artistic. When we understand the deeper meaning behind these creations, we can see the world through a different spirit.

 

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