Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Traditional Masks of West Africa | With roundup of masks you can make at home

Masks are one of the first things associated with Africa. They are an essential part of the traditional culture of Sub-Saharan Africa, and are especially prevalent in West and Central West African societies. 

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)
Masks have a deep cultural significance in West African societies. They aren't used as a decorative piece to place on a wall, but as part of social and religious rituals. They're rooted in the traditions of animism and ancestor worship, and its believed that they protect those wearing them, helping the wearer communicate with gods, spirits, and ancestors. Traditionally, masks are seen as "spirit traps" that control spirits for the benefit of the living. The wearer loses his or her identity and becomes the spirit represented by the mask. Because of this, select few have the honor of wearing them, and the artists that create ceremonial masks (as opposed to commercial masks) have a certain status. Generally, mask making is handed down from generation to generation, from father to son. 

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
Masks are used during dances, masquerades, and religious ceremonies. Masked dances are a part of most traditional ceremonies, like weddings, funerals, and initiation rites. A masquerade is a ceremony in which dancers wear masks and costumes; some are to make a request of the gods, to honor people or animals. During a masquerade, the mask and the dancer are considered sacred, and as noted earlier, what is being said is believed to be coming from the ancestor or spirit (like in the Eyo Festival in Nigeria). 

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 Uses

Here 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  
This is a Sande helmet mask (helmet because it covers the entire head and face like a helmet), known to be used in the only important mask wearing tradition exclusively for women. The Sande is a society within the Mende ethnic group, found predominantly in Sierra Leone. The Sande guide girls into womanhood, and this mask is worn by a masquerader during the public ceremony of a girl's womanhood initiation. The mask is worn with a costume of black raffia and represents a water spirit, and the distinctions of gender in Mende society. You can read more about these masks here.

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

Rather than come up with our own once we learned about masks in West African culture, Elle chose to be inspired by one of the many creative African mask crafts found online. Here's a round up with so many different ways of making one at home! They range in complexity and materials - which means there's one for every family and their preferences :)

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 at
Title ImageSenufo Face Mask from Cote d'Ivoire, Photo Source: Topeka Library (CC- Adapted with overlay)


  1. I've always thought the masks were interesting, and it's interesting to me how many culture incorporate masks like that. There were several Native American cultures that used masks similarly to the West African cultures.

    1. I love seeing masks from all different cultures - they're so fascinating to me!

  2. Alex also made a mask with contrasting colors. This post is a great resource for mask making projects!

    1. Yes, I remember seeing Alex's mask! It's a fun exercise in symmetry, isn't it?


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