10 Interesting Facts about African Masks

One of these following facts about African masks should give you much information about what kind of mask it is. Masks are sometimes considered as a ritual and ceremonial event. They are an essential feature of the traditional culture and art of the people of Subsaharan and West Africa. While the specific implications associated to ritual masks widely vary in different cultures, some traits are common to most African cultures: masks usually have a spiritual and religious meaning and they are used in ritual dances and social and religious events, and a special status is attributed to the artists that create masks and to those that wear them in ceremonies. To get to know more about the masks, here are some other facts about African masks you might like.

Facts about African Masks 1: Influences

Masks are one of the elements of African art that have most evidently influenced European and Western art in general; in the 20th century, artistic movements such as cubism, fauvism and expression have often taken inspiration from the vast and diverse heritage of African masks.

Facts about African Masks 2: Ritual and Meanings

In most traditional African cultures, the person who wears a ritual mask conceptually loses his or her human identity and turns into the spirit represented by the mask itself.This transformation of the mask wearer into a spirit usually relies on other practices, such as specific types of music and dance, or ritual costumes that contribute to conceal the mask-wearer’s human identity.

Facts about African masks - Fang mask
Facts about African masks – Fang mask

Facts about African Masks 3: Different Traditional Masks

Since every mask has a specific spiritual meaning, most traditions comprise several different traditional masks. The traditional religion of the Dogon people of Mali, for example, comprises three main cults (the Awa or cult of the dead, the Bini or cult of the communication with the spirits, and the Lebe or cult of nature); each of these has its pantheon of spirits, corresponding to 78 different types of masks overall.

Facts about African Masks 4: Subject and Style

African masks are usually shaped after a human face or some animal’s muzzle, albeit rendered in a sometimes highly abstract form. The inherent lack of realism in African masks (and African art in general) is justified by the fact that most African cultures clearly distinguish the essence of a subject from its looks, the former, rather than the latter, being the actual subject of artistical representation.

Facts about African masks - Female ancestor mask
Facts about African masks – Female ancestor mask

Facts about African Masks 5: Symbol

Traits representing moral values are found in many cultures. Masks from the Senefou people of Ivory Coast, for example, have their eyes half closed, symbolizing a peaceful attitude, self-control, and patience. In Sierra Leone and elsewhere, small eyes and mouth represent humility, and a wide, protruding forehead represents wisdom.

Facts about African Masks 6: Animals

Animals are common subjects in African masks. Animal masks might actually represent the spirit of animals, so that the mask-wearer becomes a medium to speak to animals themselves (e.g. to ask wild beasts to stay away from the village); in many cases, nevertheless, an animal is also (sometimes mainly) a symbol of specific virtues.

Facts about African masks - Ngond mask
Facts about African masks – Ngond mask

Facts about African Masks 7: Variation of the Animal-mask Theme

A common variation on the animal-mask theme is the composition of several distinct animal traits in a single mask, sometimes along with human traits. Merging distinct animal traits together is sometimes a means to represent unusual, exceptional virtue or high status.

Facts about African Masks 8: Feminine Mask

Another common subject of African masks is a woman’s face, usually based on a specific culture’s ideal of feminine beauty. Female maska of the Punu people of Gabon, for example, have long curved eyelashes, almond-shaped eyes, thin chin, and traditional ornaments on their cheeks, as all these are considered good-looking traits.

Facts about African masks - Traditional Dogon mask
Facts about African masks – Traditional Dogon mask

Facts about African Masks 9: Mask of the Dead

As the veneration of defunct ancestors is a fundamental element of most African traditional cultures, it is not surprising that the dead is also a common subject for masks. Masks referring to dead ancestors are most often shaped after a human skull. A well-known example is the mwana pwo (literally, “young woman”) of the Chokwe people (Angola).

Facts about African Masks 10: Commercial Maska

As African masks are largely appreciated by Europeans, they are widely commercialized and sold in most tourist-oriented markets and shops in Africa (as well as “ethnic” shops in the Western World). As a consequence, the traditional art of mask-making has gradually ceased to be a privileged, status-related practice, and mass production of masks has become widespread.

Facts about African masks - Wood and copper mask
Facts about African masks – Wood and copper mask

Hope you would find those African masks facts really interesting, useful and helpful for your additional reading.

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