African masks date back to Palaeolithic times and were initially used to represent spirits of ancestors or animals (known as ‘Animist’ beliefs), folklore heroes and for celebrating harvest seasons. The purposes and functions of African masks evolved over time to encompass and express all sorts of spiritual and cultural beliefs. During celebrations, war preparations or times of trouble (such as diseases and droughts) the African mask was worn by a specially chosen dancer, who held great acclaim and prestige in a village because they believed that the person had direct contact with the spiritual world – much like a Shaman – and that these people also crafted the masks, which was a craft passed down through the generations of a family. In fact, it is often believed that the wearer of the mask can directly communicate with dead ancestors or spirits whilst dancing, and he goes into a deep trance. A translator will accompany him and then decipher the meaning of the messages sent from the spirits through the mask wearer. Generally speaking, the mask can be worn in three different ways: Vertically covering the face. As a type of helmet. Or as a crest that encases the entire head that is also covered by material to disguise the wearer.
Masks are designed to appear human, animal, or a combination of the two, and as such are often decorated with animal hair or straw, animal bones, feathers, and seashells. The variation in the meaning of the masks is reflected in the wide variety of materials used to make one: Wood, pottery, textiles, copper, and bronze are all typical materials used to make the base of the mask.
How do African masks differ from one region to another?
In short, there is such a huge variety of masks from region to region Africa that it makes it difficult to put them into specific classes. That said, there are several typical African masks that can be put into specific categories by region: The ‘Face Mask’ is the most common and found throughout Africa. They are secured to the face with bands, string, or a scarf. The ‘Headdress Mask’ sits on a base which is placed on top of the wearers head. This mask is most famous amongst the Bambara (or Bamana), the largest ethnic group in modern-day Mali. ‘Shoulder Masks’ are particularly popular amongst the Baga people of Guinea, which they call ‘D’mba’ or ‘Nimba’. It represents the mother of fertility, protector of pregnant women and is used in agricultural ceremonies. The dancer carries this mask on his shoulders, looking out through eye holes between the breasts. They can rise more than eight feet off the ground, and often weigh more than 35 kilos!’Helmet Masks fit over the entire wearer’s head. They are popularly crafted and used by the Kuba people of DR Congo, as well as southwestern Nigeria. ‘Helmet Crests’ differ from masks in that they are worn like a hat, leaving the face exposed. They are most often found in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and Mali. ‘Cap Crests’ are simply worn over the forehead, leaving the top of the head and face exposed. They are found amongst the Guro people of the Ivory Coast, as well as in neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso.
African Masks are often on display at expensive and often over-priced art exhibits across the world. This is why the internet and online stores are your best bet for picking up reasonably priced African masks. Just be sure that they have certificates of authenticity and are genuine. An example of a well established and excellent online store selling genuine masks is http://www.rebirth.co.za/African_mask.htm, which offers the choice of searching by tribe, or region, giving you a taste of how masks differ from tribe to tribe and region to region. Prices range from $100-300 and they ship globally from their base in South Africa.