What Are African Masks Used For?

African masks are a fascinating and enduring aspect of African culture. Let’s take a look through some of their most important uses.

May 30, 2022By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
african masks ceremony benin mask


Masks are one of the most fascinating artefacts from African culture. Western museums and galleries often display African masks as art objects on the wall or in glass vitrines, but by treating them in this way, we miss the opportunity to really understand where the masks have come from, and the great spiritual significance they have inside the communities where they are made. It’s important to remember that masks are sacred items made to be worn during important rituals and ceremonies. With this in mind, let’s delve into some of the most significant symbolic meanings behind African masks, opening up a deeper appreciation of their cultural importance.


1. African Masks Represent Animal Spirits

african mask antelope
Antelope African mask, image courtesy of Masks of the World


Animals are a recurring theme in African masks, representing the close harmony tribes share with the natural world. Africans portray animals in a highly stylized way, conveying the animal’s inner essence, rather than a true likeness. When a wearer puts on an animal mask for a ritualized performance, sometimes accompanied by a full costume, tribespeople believe they then embody the spirit of the animal they represent. This allows them to communicate with that animal kind, to issue out a warning, or to give thanks. Animal masks also sometimes symbolize human events, needs or emotions such as calmness, virtue or power. For example, antelope represents agriculture, while elephants are a metaphor for royal power.


2. They Often Symbolize Former Ancestors

benin mask sub-saharan africa
Benin mask from sub-Saharan Africa, 16th century, image courtesy of the British Museum


Some African masks represent the spirits of dead ancestors. When the wearer puts on this mask, they become a medium who is able to commune with the deceased, passing messages back from the dead. If a dancer speaks while wearing the mask, audiences believe his words are from the dead, and an intermediary wise man must decipher them. In the Kuba culture of Zaire, masks represent former kings and rulers. While most masks act as a gateway into the spirit world, in some cases the mask represents the spirit itself, as seen in Dan masks from the Dan people occupying the western stretch of the Cote d’Ivoire.


3. African Masks Also Represent Supernatural Forces

african masks fertility
African mask representing fertility and wellbeing, image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


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In many African tribes, masks symbolize unseen, supernatural forces which are beneficial to communities. This could be anything from fertility to weather patterns. The wearer conceptually surrenders his human body when wearing the mask (and sometimes an accompanying costume), transforming into a spiritual being. This act of transformation is usually accompanied by a specific form of music and dance. Africans use these masks during ceremonies before a harvest to pray for a good yield. They also play a significant role during important ceremonies such as births, weddings, funerals and initiation rites. One particular type of mask, called the Tiriki seclusion mask, represents the transition into adulthood. Young men must wear this full body mask for six months, while entering a period of total seclusion as they train for the adult world.


4. Masks Were Sometimes a Form of Punishment

ancient African mask of shame, image courtesy of Siccum Records


Historically Africans used masks as a form of punishment. Early African communities even had a “shameful” mask, a form of public humiliation for those that had committed grave crimes. This mask was uncomfortable and even painful to wear, particularly those made out of iron, which were unusually heavy, and caused actual physical suffering. 


5. As a Form of Entertainment

african masks performance
African mask wearers during a performance, image courtesy of African Ceremonies


Last but not least, it’s important to note that African masks were a theatrical device that made wearers look bold, colorful and exciting. As well as allowing for conceptual acts of transformation, they entertained and enthralled audiences during significant moments in time, and this is a tradition that continues to this day.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.