Ife Kings Head. Image courtesy Ukabia at en.wikipedia

Like watching a beautiful image on your HD led TV, the unique world you enter once you start to gaze at an African mask can be somewhat hypnotic. There’s a beauty in these masks that’s undeniable and strong. Of all art forms in Africa, the African masks are the most sought after as souvenirs or art pieces. What many don’t realize is that each mask has a story to tell.

History of African Masks

Africans have been using masks for centuries. They have adopted all sorts of materials such as leather, wood, terracotta, ivory, metals, and are decorated with fabric, shells, riffraff, feathers, glass, and natural objects like leaves, flowers, and horns, among other things. These masks can be likened to how a Westerner would use make-up today. Masks are a form of transformation. It changes a person who wears it. In Africa, masks can denote power and mysticism.

Any celebration in Africa will have people wearing masks. It does not even have to be a religious event; it can be a social party or festival. Historically, the masks were used in rituals to call or depict ancestor spirits and mythical gods, both good and evil. When the masks weren’t being used, they were given a place of honour in the house as a sign of respect.

When masks were used in rituals, a respected older man was always accompanying the person wearing the mask as a translator. These types of rituals are still being done in several places in Africa, mainly in remote tribal villages and during festivals. One can find master carvers still hard at creating new masks for families and for the community they belong to.

How African Masks are Worn

There are 3 ways to wear an African mask: vertically, on top of the head, and covering the entire head. Often, a mask is burned after one use which is why it is extremely hard to find an old African mask. Masks used only once were created for a specific purpose and once that purpose has been achieved, the mask is burned. However, there are some masks that remain with a family for years. Then there are the sacred masks which can only be seen and used by selected members in a family or community.

Rituals Where African Masks Are Commonly Used

Some of the rituals where masks are used are initiation into adulthood, weddings, victory after a war or good harvest, witchcraft, preparation for war or hunting expeditions, exorcisms, festivals, and burials.

African masks usually are further categorized according to the tribe that makes them. One can even determine which tribe a mask comes from based on details. Around the African continent, a few tribes and communities that have surfaced because of their tribal masks are the Dan tribe of Liberia and Ivory Coast, the Dogon tribe from Mali, the Yoruba tribe from Nigeria, and the hand-crafted tribal masks from the Zulu, in South Africa. These masks can command as high as US $3000 depending on the date, design, and condition of the mask.

There are also contemporary artists who specialize in African masks. Three of the top artists are:

  • Romauld Hazoume, who was born in Benin in 1962, reworks the masks he finds and adds a few modern touches like jerry cans, industrial waste products, and salvaged garbage.
  • Joseph-Francis Sumegne from Cameroon incorporated scrap metal and waste materials. His finished African masks usually have a sinister appeal with a strong sense of mystery
  • Nick Cave from Missouri is an American who finds inspiration in African art, especially the masks. He enjoys using ordinary home items like bottle caps, fabric, sequins, hair, fur, sticks, and pieces of wood to create his version of the African mask

When buying African masks, one must expect imperfections because this is part of the artistry of the masks. There is no perfect African mask as they all have a slight uneven balance, unusual use of paint and décor materials, and even imperfections in the base material.