The African continent can give any culture with a history of
masks and mask making a run for its money. Particularly the ancient tribes of
Sub-Saharan Africa, whose masks made quite an impression on the Europeans that
first arrived there. It is likely that if you have a friend who has a mask on
the wall for decorative purposes, it is a modern derivative of the African
Like with most others around the world, if the masks were
worn by the living, they weren’t worn on the daily. They were part of rituals,
which in fantastic African fashion involved a dance and a trance-like rhythm.
The ritualistic African mask, therefore, was not designed to
give an identity to the wearer as much as dissolve it. A lot of these dances
and rituals did have the purpose of putting everyone involved into a trance. It
was believed that one must detach from their human identity in order to
communicate with the spirit realm. The thought at the time was that the
physical realm and the spirit realm are intertwined, and to gain a degree of
fortune in one, you must have a connection to the other. This included both a
connection to the world of the dead and the spirits of nature. That is why many
of the masks depict animals.
These rituals, while seem completely alien at first glance, are similar in many ways to some of the rituals modern day westerners practice in their religious communities. One such practice is the veneration of the dead. For the African cultures the veneration was not of specific historical figures (with some exceptions) but of archetypes – models of virtue or a type of person worthy of note and respect. One such archetypal figure is “mwana pwo”, which represents a woman who died young. This was not uncommon at the time, especially during childbirth. In this way the sacrifice of life for the sake of the continuation of life is honored in African traditions.
Animal masks were not connected to deities, like in Egypt, but were rather assigned characteristics that the animal most strongly represented. The buffalo, for example, was a symbol of strength. Anyone familiar with the concept of the buffalo will likely find the logic there to be self-evident. Masks imitated human faces as well, with certain expressions carved into the mask to symbolise a virtue. That way a large chin represented courage and an ability to lead, a sizable forehead was a symbol for wisdom, and a narrow carving of the eyes represented a non-aggressive disposition. The material used for the mask was most commonly wood, but painted clay masks were also found, albeit are considerably more rare, as they were less suitable for use in rituals due to their weight and fragility. That is not to say that the wooden versions were light. They didn’t just cover the face, but were very wide and long, extending all the way to the chest sometimes, with feathers arranged along the edge for extra effect.