African Mask Symbolism

African masks are unique to each tribe and their shape and accessories have special meanings for the different cultures.

Masks have been used by the world's diverse cultures for centuries. The ancient Greek actors used masks for special theatrical representations. Eighteenth century Europeans frequented masked balls where the masks were elaborately decorated with beads and feathers. The Chinese still use masks in their traditional dances. African cultures have perhaps the richest mask traditions. In African societies masks are used for funeral ceremonies and harvest dances. They figure prominently in the right of passages for young men, and have become a source of pride in modern-day celebrations. Masks are unique to each specific African society and their shape and accessories have special meanings for the different cultures.

One of the most abundant types of masks among African cultures is the animal representation. Animal masks connect people with the spirit world that traditional African beliefs say inhabit the forests and open savannas. The Bwa and Nuna people of Burkina Faso call on the spirits to ward off destruction. Crocodiles, hawks and buffalo are the most frequently carved animal masks. Masked dances are held on market day, during initiations and at funerals to honor the spirits and evoke their blessings. The Nuna hawk mask carvers used an animal-like snout to distinguish it from the hawk mask of the nearby Bwa, who use a distinctly rounded mouth. The wings of both are carved with geometric patterns to represent moral principles. The zigzag lines refer to the often-difficult path of their ancestors. The checkerboard patterns show the forces of polar opposites such as light and dark, knowledge and ignorance, and men and women.

The Dogon of Mali also rely on animal masks for many of their ceremonies. The Dogon have complex religious beliefs that manifest in three cults: Awa - the cult of the dead, Binu - the cult of spirit communication, and Lebe - the cult of earth. There are nearly seventy-eight different types of masks associated with the cults. Most of the ceremonies are highly secret, but non-Dogons are most often introduced to the dance of the antelope mask. The mask is a rough rectangle box with several horns protruding from the top. For the Dogon, who are expert agriculturists, the antelope is the symbol of the hardworking farmer. Dancers wearing the masks hit the ground with sticks to represent the characteristic pawing of an antelope, but also the hoeing motion of the Dogon farmers.

The Bamana people of Mali also have a rich agricultural tradition. The Bamana believe that the antelope taught man how to farm. The intricately carved Bamana antelope headdresses are worn for special inauguration ceremonies. The horns represent the sprouting of grain. The antelope mask continues to hold a prominent place in Malian society. Many government agricultural societies use the mask as their logo.

Masks are also carved to represent a culture's ideal of feminine beauty. Female masks of the Punu of Gabon have highly arched eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes and a narrow chin. The raised strip running from both sides of the nose to the ears represents ornamental jewelry. The mask is topped by a dark black hairstyle, but the face of the mask is white to represent the whiteness and beauty of the spirit world. Despite being a 'female' mask, only men will wear it while performing a dance on high stilts.

For the Baga people of Guinea, the beauty of a woman is captured in her breasts and facial scars. Baga carved female masks can be as large as a Roman nobleman's marble bust. Usually carved of wood, the masks have elongated, flat breasts symbolizing many years of childbirth. Scratches across the cheeks mimic the facial scars coveted by Baga women. Many masks even replicate the tightly woven hair braids popular in most African cultures. Similar to the Punu of Gabon, the Baga 'female' masks are reserved for men only. In fact, Baga men compete openly for the right to wear the female masks in special ceremonies.

The best representation of female beauty is the famous Idia's Mask from Benin. This mask is believed to have been commissioned by a king of Benin in memory of his mother. The ivory carvings depict the realistic deep-set eyes, full lips and wide forehead of the women of Benin. The king would have worn the mask on his hip during special ceremonies to honor his dead mother.

African masks are also made for moral lessons. Most African societies have no extensive written culture and masked dances serve to teach people right from wrong. The Senefou people of the Ivory Coast carve masks with eyes half-shut and lines drawn near the mouth to represent tranquility. Such masks are used to portray the virtues of self-control and patience. The Temne of Sierra Leone use masks with small eyes and mouths to represent humility and humbleness. Bulging foreheads carved with designs symbolize wisdom. In Gabon, certain masks can enforce obedience on those in power. Such masks have strong chins and mouths to represent sternness. Eyebrows arch down to form the nose, depicting a strong individual. Other masks have exaggerated long faces and broad foreheads to represent the soberness of one's duty that comes with power.

War masks are also popular among African tribes. The Grebo of the Ivory Coast carve war masks with small, round eyes to represent alterness and anger. The sharp straight nose depicts an unwillingness to retreat. A block under the nose represents the teeth, which are bared in aggression.

Although African masks are sold in most African (and American) markets, these masks are only replicas of the original masks used in African societies. Most African masks are passed down from one generation to the next, and masks that have truly been used in African ceremonies are almost never found on the open market. Most Africans are still economically tied to the land, and modern religions have not replaced traditional masked dances for harvest blessings. For those Africans who no longer participate in village life, the masks are still used in public ceremonies - a proud reminder of their African heritage.

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