Cultures & Traditions

African Masks

Almost all peoples have used masks to disguise themselves. Prehistoric rock paintings suggest that masking may have been part of magico-religious ceremonies. An image of an African mask first appeared in the central Sahara thousands of years ago. The Stone Age inhabitants left a record of their presence in rock art at Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria, where they painted a human figure whose size and features are exaggerated. The figure is interpreted as a masked dancer wearing a knotted costume. Through this disguise, the dancer has been transformed into a deity or spirit. Whatever the purpose of the disguise, scholars cite this painting, which is dated 8000 to 6000 BCE, as the earliest evidence for one of the most important of all African art forms: masks. Carved wooden masks are a highly developed and enduring African art form that is valued for its expressive qualities.

The oldest existing carved wood sculpture from central Africa is possibly an animal head headdress that was excavated at a site to the east of the Cuanza River in Angola. It has been scientifically dated from the 8th to 9th century. The lack of perforations around the edge makes its use as a mask debatable. Some scholars prefer to regard it as a vessel. They turn the object upside down so the four protrusions (one of which is a pair of ears) become the “legs” of a stylized quadruped. While masks are mentioned in early travelers’ published accounts of their visits to sub-Saharan Africa since the 14th century, the first illustration of a mask did not appear until the 17th century. An engraving in François Froger’s book about his travels along the west coast of Africa from 1695 to 1699 shows a male wearing a wickerwork cap with cow’s horns. The event described, which occurred in Gambia, was a boys’ initiation rite.

African masks provide a tangible form for invisible spirits, which are personified as human beings, animals, or fantastic composites of both. Spirits—deities, ancestors, and nature spirits (those that inhabit streams, rivers, rocks, and other natural forms)—get involved in the affairs of people, by invitation or not. When a spirit wants to interact with humans, it appears to a man in a dream and reveals to him its name, its personality, and what it can do on his community's behalf. This spirit also indicates how it wants to be embodied. If the spirit chooses to be embodied in a mask, it may specify a human form with male or female, or beautiful or unattractive, features that will be consistent with its actions.

Some spirits choose to be embodied in a form with animal characteristics. This includes masks that represent many wild and a few domesticated animals, such as antelopes, warthogs, elephants, buffaloes, birds, a butterfly, and a goat. In performance, masked dancers imitate the animal's movements in dance steps and gestures. Their behaviors serve as models for positive human behavior and social conduct through entertaining performances that carry a serious message. Because of their intelligence, size, strength, or aggressive behavior, some animals like elephants and buffaloes are metaphors for royal power and embody the spirits of royal ancestors.

Spirits may also dictate that they be manifested in masks that represent neither humans nor animals but a composite, which combines the features of both, or even entirely imaginary creatures. These are usually the dangerous nature spirits whose masks are used in men's secret societies, but a few are used for entertainment. Artists are inspired to create masks that will appear mysterious, awesome, and frightening, as exemplified by an all-seeing janus-form headdress and the komo maks that features an array of animal horns with sharp tips that are used by Bembe and Senufo men's socieities, who membership is closed to females and uninitiated males.

The masks used to disguise the face are often only an element of an ensemble, including a costume, worn in masquerades. In Africa south of the Sahara, masquerades are multimedia events that are an aesthetic expression of a community’s history, culture, and identity. Dancers may wear a carved wood or fiber mask, worn on top of, over, or on their faces, and a costume made of natural or man-made materials. They perform intricate steps or acrobatics accompanied by singers and musicians playing various types of drums, bells, and other instruments. Disguised as deities or as ancestral or nature spirits, masked dancers celebrate important events in the life cycle, enact myths about the introduction of agriculture at the beginning of the planting season, and assist the soul’s transition from the world of the living to the afterlife. Some masks play the stern role of policeman and enforce law and order while others use humor and satire to discourage unacceptable behavior and social values. Masquerades generally occur in public in broad daylight, but sometimes they are secret events held at night with only initiated males as witnesses.

Masquerades often include not one but several masked dancers embodying various spirits. For example, annual Egungun masquerades bring the ancestors back to town dressed in sumptuous cloths. Families own the masquerades, so as many as possible who can afford the cost of the elaborate costumes and other requirements for participating are represented in the week-long festival. The Dogon dama has at least seventy masks that comprise a visually summary of the Dogon world from the creation to the present. In contrast to these large masquerades, the Chokwe and Kuba require only two or three masks to represent their ancestral spirits.

Many masquerades no longer exist. The impact of colonialism, imposition of a Western educational system, conversion to Christianity or Islam, and other changes have resulted in the demise of traditional religious, political, and social practices. Yet, many masquerades have survived because they adapted to the changing times. While some beliefs may no longer be viable, social values remain important. The new role of the masquerade is to reinforce those values. Western industrial products are incorporated as masquerade elements; for example, a gas mask left on a battle field can become part of a costume. Modern marketing methods are used to advertise annual festivals that make the sprits tangible in spectacular masquerades that attract both locals and tourists. Today, urban masquerades address current health and social issues such as AIDS and drug abuse.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, African Masks: The Art of Disguise, Gallery text, 2010.

Related Multimedia

Art and Ritual series lecture; introduction by Roslyn Walker, speaker is Professor of Art History at the University of Iowa; discusses the masks and traditions in Burkina Faso
Gallery talk by Dr. Roslyn Walker, DMA curator, in conjunction with African Masks exhibition
Gallery talk by Dr. Thomas Riccio, professor of performance and aesthetic studies, UT Dallas, in conjunction with African Masks exhibition