African Tribal Masks

African Tribal Masks

African tribal masks play such an important role in the African arts that they can be considered just as much performance art as they can sculpture.

In keeping with the traditional elements of Africa’s tribal arts, masks display a wealth of emotion, imagination, and meaning represented in abstract forms. Instead of creating these important works of art for the benefit of adornment alone, they instead were used frequently as sacred objects in ceremonies and rituals.

In these important ceremonies, a chosen tribe member who was trained or had previously demonstrated special abilities to communicate with the spirit of tribal elders wore African tribal masks. The wearer of these ceremonial African tribal masks would often go into a state of trance, possessed by the spirit, in which they would dance the story, history, or message of the embodied spirit.

When used for initiation ceremonies, the initiate would dance the mask of the tribal ancestors to receive their blessing as an important member of the tribe. Other important tribal events that called for dancing the African tribal masks are the harvesting of crops and to prepare for warfare.

Traditional African tribal masks are made of wood to represent the human or animal deity their wearer will portray. Adornments and embellishments often used to decorate African tribal masks are ivory and other semiprecious gems and stones, animal hair, raffia and other plant fibers, and paints made from traditional materials found in nature.

African tribal masks are usually made in one of three styles. Helmet-style masks cover the face and the entire head. Other masks are made to cover the face only. Crest-style masks are more like headdresses that rest on top of the head and cover only a part of the face.

As with all African tribal art, the artisans crafting them come from extremely diverse cultures, geographies, and periods of time throughout history. Each one is unique and beautiful in its own powerful way. African tribal masks are some of the most highly prized items in any African art collection.