African Masks are a symbol of traditional culture and art of the people of Sub-Saharan Africa. Masks are known to have a spiritual and religious meaning and they are used in social and religious events like ceremonies and weddings or even during funerals. The earliest masks were used in Africa before Paleolithic era and they relate to the spirits of animals or ancestors, mythological heroes, moral values or a symbolic way of offering respect to a person. The masks are carved from wood, pottery, textiles, copper and bronze with the minute details made from animal teeth, hair, bones, horns, feathers, seashells and even straw and egg shells.
Here we have some fascinating facts about African Masks:
- The creators of the masks enjoy a high rank in the village. They are believed to have a contact with the world of spirits. Not everyone in the community can make these masks. The art of creating masks is passed on from generation to generation in the family. The work requires high knowledge and specialized skills.
- The person wearing the mask loses his/her identity and transforms into a spirit as represented by the mask. So, the mask-wearer forms a kind of link between the community and the spirits for communication. Masked dance on special ceremonies like wedding, funerals, initiation rites form a part of the traditional African ceremonies.
- The shape of African masks pertains to a human face or animal’s muzzle. The masks are used to represent an abstract subject and the one who wears a mask of a specific animal is believed to connect with that animal. The most widely used animal mask is that of antelope worn for better crops. Masks, most commonly, represent animals like buffalo, hyena, hawk, and crocodile.
- The masks, representing ancestors, have the shape of a human skull. These masks act as witnesses, dead ancestral protectors for asking approval or as subjects to who respects are paid.
- There are other special African masks which are also worn in times of war to demonstrate anger and aggressiveness.
- A mask is worn only once when used for spiritual purposes and then it is disposed off or burnt away. It does not serve any function more than once.
- The ceremonies having masked dances in the African culture are often restricted to be viewed by certain people or certain members of the community. The ceremonies involve a lot of tradition and taboo.
- African masks portray deities, mythological beasts and Gods, the dead, animals, nature or any force that is more powerful than humans. Masks serve as a medium for prayers to God for many purposes such as during initiation into manhood/womanhood/adulthood, fertility, hunting preparation, execution of criminals, and expulsion of bad spirits or purification of village.
- Only specific persons who possess certain special qualities can wear the masks during ceremonies.
- There are special African masks representing a female face, some having breasts and ornamental scars and others having almond shaped eyes, curved eyelashes, thin chin and ornaments. These masks representing feminine beauty are reserved to be worn by men only.
- The shape of the eyes in the masks is used to demonstrate a certain kind of emotion. Each ethnic group has their own corresponding meaning to a specific shape of the eyes. In some Punu communities, half-open eyes represent peace while in Grebo communities, small and rounded eyes represent anger.
- Masks are also created to be sold in many tourist-oriented markets and shops in Africa. So, the masks are also being commercialized due to which the mass-making art has lost its uniqueness and high-status.