Understanding African Masks

In Africa masks can be traced back to well past Paleolithic times. These art objects were, and are still made of various materials, included are leather, metal, fabric and various types of wood. African masks should be seen as part of a ceremonial costume. They are used in religious and social events to represent the spirits of ancestors or to control the good and evil forces in the community. They come to life, possessed by their spirit in the performance of the dance, and are enhanced by both the music and atmosphere of the occasion. Some combine human and animal features to unite man with his natural environment. This bond with nature is of great importance to the African and through the ages masks have always been used to express this relationship.

Information on African Mask Types

There is a huge variety of mask types found in Africa which makes classifying them a difficult task. This type of African art ranges from very detailed and accurate figures to the very abstract. African masks can be classified into the following basic types.
Face mask – are the most common mask type. They are used throughout Africa. They can be secured to the face in several ways. These methods include with a band or string put through holes on each side of the mask, held on by a wig, or secured by a scarf.

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Hand carved Beaded Face Wooden African Masks from West Africa.

Headdress masks – are actually are set on a base which sits on top of the wearers head. The Bambara (Bamana), who are the largest ethnic group in Mali, are famous for this type of mask.

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baulé masque | mask/headdress |

Shoulder masks – are usually large and heavy and rest on the wearer’s shoulders.

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Shoulder mask nimba, representing a fertility spirit. Sculpture of the Baga people.

Helmet masks – fit over the wearer’s entire head and are usually carved from a section of tree trunk.

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Wooden lipiko mask from the Makonde people

Helmet crests – Unlike the helmet masks these mask do not fit over the wearer’s entire head but rather is worn like a hat, leaving the face exposed.Image result for African Helmet crests

Zamble Helmet Crest Mask, Guro Culture, from Marahoué Region, Ivory Coast, 19th century

Cap crests (forehead masks) – This type of mask is worn on the forehead leaving the wearer’s face exposed.

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