African masks


Of all the cultures around the world, one of the most enigmatic and interesting is the African. And within this culture, it is impossible not to think about the iconic African masks , which are present in war, religion and others.


What are African masks?

African masks are one of the best known artistic manifestations in African countries They are usually used in various ritual activities, and presented a high symbolic load. Normally, they were present in initiation, childbirth, harvest or judgment rituals. They are representations that try to capture abstractions (love, kindness, honesty) or to create links with divine entities. Its uses and symbols may vary according to the sector or area.


Meaning of African masks

We have seen them in films, or in comics, or in series. If there is something that we can rescue from African art, it is their masks.


Africa is a complex continent. Usually, in the West we have the belief that it is a single country, without greater complexity, attractiveness or surprise. However, once the anthropological microscope is applied, it is seen that the continent not only has a variety of countries, but also cultures. Each town has its own history , of which they have an important oral tradition that still persists today.

One of the most used traditions, regardless of their quality, is the use of African masks. In the West there are many replicas that have tried to capture its essentiality. They are usually used here for purely decorative reasons. These reasons have been criticized by those familiar with the matter. In Africa, masks have other functions that are a little closer to the symbolic, to the significant.

It can vary from culture to culture, but these masks have a very important cultural function. They are usually used in the celebration of certain rituals. The masks, for these tribes, were more than just an artistic piece. They were true divine representations , forms that try to capture (metaphorically and literally) the essence of some entity. It can be a spirit or something else. We will talk about this below.


The main characteristics of African masks are:

  • They are one of the most famous pieces of art on the African continent . They have been represented in a variety of Western media , and many homes and offices use them for decorative purposes.
  • However, its function lies in more than just decoration. They have a high symbolic quality, to the point that there are few occasions where they are used.
  • Its symbolism may vary. Sometimes they can represent abstract values , or the image of some entity. This entity can be a spirit, a god, or an ancestor.
  • Its use is what, in some way, gives meaning to its symbolism. The ultimate goal of the masks is to transform its wearer into what it represents in some way. The wearer usually disconnects from himself, in order to take care of representing what the mask is.
  • They usually had an expiration date. They were not masks that were used and then saved for another occasion. When used in very specific moments, the normal thing was that they were later destroyed.
  • The material with which they were made was wood. This was because the sculptors or carvers saw in the tree an entity with a soul. However, the normal thing was also to use terracotta, clay, ceramic or metal for its manufacture.

Types of African masks

  • Masks from Mali , which, of very different styles, would come to represent the creation rituals of the universe. Typically, these rituals are held every sixty years.
  • Sierra Leone masks, which are used by women. This is a strange fact, since the common is that the masks are only used by men in the continent. They are normally used in fertility rituals and female ablation.
  • Burkina Fasso masks. They are masks originally used in times of war. They used to be used in funeral celebrations


We must understand that African masks are inextricably linked to their function. It is common to find in African culture traditions based on the performance of rituals. A ritual obeys different reasons. It is an attempt by man to capture an aspect of reality through his own productions. These masks become rituals in order to interact and change climatic phenomena, fertility, births and death. The masks would come to catalyze this relationship.

The purpose of the masks is to allow the incarnation of some deity or abstraction. A dancer would represent the deity, and in that process, he would cease to be him to be “possessed” in a trance by it. The masks had the function, in this case, of allowing contact with them, and of obtaining advice with them.

Importance of African masks

They are one of the most important representations in African cultures. As a form of expression, they manifest something of the idiosyncrasy of the peoples who make use of them. African masks are part of a great legacy that allows not only the knowledge of the historical traditions of their peoples, but they are instruments of mediation in the face of the various conflicts and disagreements of existence.

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