The Significance of African Tribal Masks

4 Mar 2022

African tribal masks have been the inspiration of artists for generations and have been incorporated into western décor since at least the early 20th century. While these masks are works of art, their historical significance is indicative of much more than simple modern day wall hangings. The use of tribal masks in Africa can be traced to before Paleolithic times and have continued to be a symbol of African culture. To this day, masks are used in celebrations and ceremonies by some tribes and regarded as highly collectible and exquisite works of art around the world.

In most African cultures and traditions, masks are used during rituals, celebrations and religious ceremonies. It is thought that the person wearing the mask will lose his or her human traits and become the spirit represented by the mask. These tribal masks, while typically modelled after a human face or animal muzzle, can be extremely abstract in the depiction of the subjects’ spirit.

The crafters of these masks are revered among the members of the tribe because it is believed they have a connection with the spirit world. The craft of mask making is typically passed down within the family and is reliant on whatever materials they may have at their disposal including wood, copper and textiles. Additional materials such as animal hair, horns, teeth or sea shells are used to create details and ornamentation on the mask.

Tribal masks can be classified by how they are made to be worn more than by tribe or ritual purpose. The issue of classification is hard because of the large variety of masks across many different tribes. The only complete classifications are as follows:

Cap Crests

Also known as forehead masks, cap crests are worn on the forehead allowing the face to remain exposed.

Headdress Masks

These types of masks are created on top of a cap or base that sits on top of the head.

Shoulder Masks

Shoulder masks are traditionally equipped with a brace of some type and sit upon the wearer’s shoulders.

Helmet Masks

Typically created using a section of tree trunk, these masks cover the entire face and head.

Helmet Crests

These crest style masks are similar to the helmet mask with the exception of the face covering. The mask covers the top, back and sides of the head leaving the face exposed.

Face Mask

The face mask is the most common type of mask. These masks cover the face and are usually attached using a string tied around the head. They are often accompanied by a wig of animal hair or raffia to complete the effect.

The reasons behind the use of tribal masks vary from tribe to tribe and can even vary within a tribe itself. Some tribes use the mask to invoke the spirit that is believed to be embodied in the mask to stop evil or request the spirit’s guidance. Other tribes use the masks to symbolize the different aspects of their religious beliefs. One tribe, the Dogon people, have three cultural societies. The society of the dead, the society of the spirits and the society of nature and earth. These three societies use a combination of 78 masks to represent their varying and overlapping beliefs. The Senufo tribe, which resides off the Ivory Coast uses masks in a ritual that is believed to aid the spirit of the dead as they travel from this life to the afterlife.

In addition to the masks symbolizing religion and ritual, many tribes used masks to idealize feminine beauty. For example, the Punu people of Gabon created masks with long eyelashes, a thin chin and almond shaped eyes. These are the feminine characteristics the Punu people found to be the most beautiful.

Today, the majority of tribal masks being produced are intended as souvenirs to be sold to western tourists. Because of the demand, the creation of these masks are no longer about spiritual significance and the art of the craft as it is handed down from generation to generation. Despite the mass production efforts, these masks still represent a beautiful art form steeped in the tradition and history of the African culture.