Why do Africans make masks? African tribal masks have, for the longest time, played a vital role in celebrations, rituals, and tribal initiations. Due to its diversity in cultures, Africa has a rich history of making and wearing masks. Most of the masking rituals are accompanied by song, dance, and prayer.
Different masks from various African tribes are worn for specific reasons. For instance, some are used as icons of power to chase away evil spirits while others are for celebratory purposes and thanksgiving after a successful harvest. Among the people who wear African masks, there are the traditional healers, rainmakers, and young boys during their initiation into adulthood. Below we take a look at the various types of African masks and their meaning.
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African mask symbols and meanings
What are the types of African masks? Masking rituals are most common in West Africa, the Congo, Mozambique, and parts of Tanzania. Even though there are thousands of communities in Africa with masking rituals, we shall only explore a few African masks meanings.
1. Bamileke mask
This African mask has its origin in Cameroon. This particular type of cover is created in honour of the king and prominent chiefs. The masks are decorated with colourful beads, which are symbols of great wisdom while the cowry shells portray wealth.
The Bamileke masks are viewed as objects of power; hence, it is used during crucial ceremonies and rituals to worship the royal ancestors of the present king. The mask also protects its people and guarantees the fertility of the land and the women in the community. Due to this, Bamileke masks are worn during planting and harvesting, war expeditions, the annual festival of the dry season, and during the opening of the royal hunt.
2. Pende mask
The Pende mask is worn by the Kasai Pende community, which resides in the eastern part of their territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This tribal mask combines the human and buffalo features and is decorated with engraved triangular grids painted with dark and light colourings creating a checkboard effect.
The Pende mask is used to communicate with the spirits during communal rituals. This is because the Kasai Pende believe that the spirits can influence their quality of life either negatively or positively. It is also hung above the door or window of the chief's office.
3. Yohure mask
The Yohure is a carefully crafted mask with a blend of human and animal characteristics. It has horns, stretched face with a high forehead, arched eyebrows, and a low prodding mouth.
This African mask is worn during dance rituals to aid the villagers in grieving the death of one of them. It is believed that the mask symbolizes the Yu spirits that help to restore the social balance after mourning. Because the Yohure masks are considered powerful and dangerous, they are kept away from women's sight as it is believed they can harm them.
4. Baule mask
The Baule mask is also referred to as a Goli mask, is one of the famous West African masks. It is mainly used during cultural dances in the harvest seasons, at the funeral of distinguished figures, and in processions to celebrate eminent visitors.
The circular face of the Baule mask signifies the life-giving force of the sun while its horns represent the strength of the buffalo.
5. Woyo mask
Woyo masks are decorated with contrasting colours on a white background and are worn together with costumes created from banana leaves. The colours painted on the mask have a symbolic meaning, and at times, it gets repainted to renew the mask's power.
Woyo is an African warrior mask as it is created for the ritual dance of the 'ndunga', a male group in charge of maintaining law and order in the community. Because the Woyo community believes in witchcraft, these masks are used to help them determine the guilt of individuals practising sorcery.
6. Dan mask
The Dan masks feature a high forehead, pointed chin, and a pouting mouth. They also have scarification marks that split the forehead and nose. They are made from wood and painted with brown dye.
These masks are observed as sacred items that are used for protection and channels of communication with the old spirit world. The Dan tribesmen carry small masks while travelling to give them personal protection.
7. Biombo mask
This tribal African mask is crafted from wood and stained with red 'tukula' powder. It has coffee bean-shaped eyes with a triangular checkerboard design on the eyebrows. To add, the masks have feathers placed on top of them.
Biombo masks are adorned during tribal rituals and ceremonies.
8. Senufo mask
Senufo masks are made by professional artists that reside away from the rest of the community. These traditional African masks also combine both human and animal physical characteristics.
Senufo masks are symbols of power and are used as a mode of communication between the living and the spirit world. Besides, the masks are used to teach young men their traditions and responsibilities during rites of passage for the Poro society.
9. Kota mask
The Kota mask possesses stylized heads and simple lozenge-shaped bodies. Convex faces represent males while concave ones epitomize females. Some Kota masks have faces on both ends of the head and are referred to as Kota statues caretaker or container figures. It is believed it safeguards the remnant of ancestors that are inside a box, basket, or bundle known as 'Bwete'. The Kota community worships the remains of their ancestors as they believe they have the power to assist them in times of trouble.
Ligbi masks, just like others, are carved from wood and combine animal and human features. The mask has an elongated face trimmed with wings on each side. Its eyes are shaded while its mouth is rectangular.
Ligbi masks are used to mark the end of Ramadhan. The wearers of the mask dance in pairs as they showcase their synchronized movements. Makeup and jewellery are used to compliment the Ligbi masks during the celebrations.
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What do African tribal masks represent?
Most African masks signify a spirit, and it is believed that the spirits will possess the wearer.
What were African tribal masks used for?
African tribal masks are worn for grave reasons like encouraging human fertility, ensuring a good harvest, for burial rituals, ancestral worship, for protection from evil spirits, and rituals like rites of passage, among others.
What are the different types of African masks?
Face masks are the most common, but there are others like helmet masks, forehead masks, headdress masks, shoulder masks, and helmet crest masks.
What are the characteristics of African masks?
- Enlarged facial features;
- Symmetrical design;
- Checkboard patterns;
- They are twisted, parallel, curved.
No doubt that the various African tribal masks are of significance to the communities that make them. Are you from a tribe that has tribal masks? Share with us on the comment section below so that we can know more about the famous African masks and their role in society.
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