Although the term "African masks" suggests there is only one African culture, specific uses and representations of masks vary widely across the many cultures that use them. Having said that, there are some general traits that apply to most.
|Satimbe masks of the Dogon, Mali|
Photo Credit: Mark Abel (CC)
Watch a Dogon masked dance in Mali, as well as well as a good fortune ceremony in Burkina Faso. Can you imagine having the strength and balance just to wear these masks?
Masks usually have spiritual and religious meanings. As a whole, they represent the bonds between a tribe and its ancestors; more specifically, they can represent certain persons, animals or spirits of nature, or even symbolize various values. For example, a lion represents strength, a spider prudence in certain cultures. With every mask having a specific meaning, most societies have several different traditional mask. For example, the Dogon people of Mali have three cults, each with its own spirits, resulting in 78 different types of masks!
Watch & learn about the gelede, a masked song and dance ceremony performed to mark major events, especially the annual harvest by the Yoruba
|Bwa ceremonial dance, Burkina Faso|
Photo Credit: Dietmar Temps
Watch a masquerade dance from Nigeria
Traditional West African masks come in many different sizes and shapes. Some cover only the face, while others are like a helmet covering the entire face and head, while others yet are a headdress worn over the head. Some are attached to long costume beginning at the end of the mask and covering the entire body (like in a masquerade) while others are a separate part of a costume (for example worn with a grass skirt). They are most commonly made of wood but sometimes out of brass, copper or bronze. Some are embellished with plant fibers, leather, shells, straw and/or animal horns. Some are painted in bold colors, while others remain natural. They can weight upwards of 25lbs or more and as seen in videos above can be quite tall! It's fair to say with all these differences that traditional African masks come in such a variety that they shouldn't be generalized.
Take a look for yourself of the many differences in traditional African masks with these resources:
- The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art has an extensive collection that can be viewed online. I tried to link directly to masks, but it keeps redirecting to the collections home page - once there, click on the link to "search objects" on the right, then in the drop down menu for "classification" (the first one) click on "masks", and "submit" at the bottom of the page.
- The Barbier-Mueller Museum also shares their collection online, predominantly from West Africa. And if you can get their book at your local library (like we did), it's a fantastic resource. It has 100 masks in full color, on a full page, each with a description of the mask, the culture that uses the mask and often what the mask represents. There are also many smaller, black and white photographs of the masks in use, ranging from 1910s to 1990s.
Examples of West African Masks & Their UsesHere are a few examples of traditional West African masks and their meaning and/or uses in their specific cultures.
|Sande helmet mask|
From The Childrens Museum of Indianapolis
by I, Daniel Schwen. CC via Wikimedia Commons
|Guard Masks of the Dan|
Brooklyn Museum CC
via Wikimedia Commons
This is mask is known as a guard mask of the Dan ethnic group, predominantly in Liberia. It was worn as an expression of the authority of the council of elders and their leadership. Those wearing the masks were believed to be representing spiritual beings capable of giving unbiased and just judgments. They were worn to enforce the council's rules and orders.
|Senufo face mask|
Brooklyn Museum CC
via Wikimedia Commons
This is a face mask of the Senufo ethnic group, primarily found in Cote d'Ivoire. The Senufo have numerous masks worn for religious functions. These masks were used during elaborate funeral ceremonies and the masks were used to compel the spirit of the deceased to leave his house.
Make Your Own West African Tribal Mask
Elle decided to make a mask using two contrasting colors of cardstock as an exercise in symmetry for her mask (glued over a sturdy piece of cardboard to hang). She was inspired by the photographs of masks found here. Arty Factory has a similar tutorial in making two tone symmetrical masks here.
(Similar to this mask of the Tsogo people in central-western Africa Gabon)
United Art & Education shares a video tutorial to make this mask with a preform mask you can pick up at a craft store, paper mache, raffia and paint.
First Palette shares a tutorial to make this mask with a paper plate, newspaper and pasta or tissue paper.
Tiny Rotten Peanuts shares a tutorial to make this mask, which also uses a preform craft mask, embellished with plaster strips and paint. (Similar to this mask of the Lega people in central-western Africa Democratic Republic of Congo)
The Chaos & The Clutter shares how her kids made masks with cardboard, glue and paint.
My Adventures in Positive Space had an art class making masks from recycled materials, using laundry soap containers as the base, and adding onto them with bottle caps, popsicle sticks, and small pieces available to them. She shares the end results with examples to inspire making masks with recycled materials at home.
Hannah's Art Club share's her 3 & 4 year old art class that made these masks by painting with white over a brown paper mask form that you could cut one out at home using brown cardstock or light cardboard. (Similar to this Senufo mask of Cote d'Ivoire)
Art with Mr. E shares his art class' masks made with milk jugs and paint - the mouth is the spout and the nose is the handle, while the back of the jug is cut out.
Art with Small Hands shares how to make this mask using wheat paste and paper mache. (Similar to this Nigerian mask of the Ejagham people)
Find more posts exploring culture, geography and history with kids atTitle Image: Senufo Face Mask from Cote d'Ivoire, Photo Source: Topeka Library (CC- Adapted with overlay)