Cultures & Traditions

Masquerades (African Masks)

Masquerades are multimedia events that 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 visual 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.

Human Disguises

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 wishes 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. The 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.

Composite Disguises

Some spirits 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 mask that features an array of animal horns with sharp tips that are used by Bembe and Senufo men’s societies, whose membership is closed to females and uninitiated males.

Animal Disguises

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, the 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.

Culture Hero Disguises

Culture heroes are usually legendary or mythological figures who did something significant such as introduce agriculture, iron, or religion, or found the ruling dynasty. Examples of culture heroes in the DMA collection include a Yoruba Epa mask bearing the carved image of Osanyin, the great healer and herbalist [2007.41.1], a Mukenga mask embodying Woot, who brought civilization to the Kuba peoples [1998.11], and a chi wara headdress referencing the mythical antelope that introduced agriculture to the Bamana [1974.SC.9].

Adapted from

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

Related Multimedia

African Art Lecture Series; In conjunction with Animals in African Art: From the Familiar to the Marvelous, February 2-April 27, 1997; speaker is Professor of Art History and Anthropology, School of the Art Institute of Chicago