History Of African Ceremonial Masks

History Of African Ceremonial Masks

Hand carved ceremonial African masks are a type of mask worn during specific and important ceremonies throughout sub-Saharan africa. These masks served an important historical purpose, often made from local materials and designed to look like the spirit who would be embodied by the mask and its wearer.

 These masks date back thousands of years, can be found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and hold a great deal of significance. In some cases there were unique tribal masks only to be worn by those who were a member of that tribe, and in other cases there were gender specific masks only worn by specific genders.

Ceremonial African masks are still worn today often in historical demonstrations but they can be used as home decor and for spiritual purposes in a modern setting. 

What are ancient ceremonial African Masks? 

In certain African cultures, hand carved ceremonial African masks provide a place for a spirit to reside. When a man, and on fewer occasions a woman, wears a mask with a costume they temporarily sacrifice their own being and allow the inhabiting spirit to take over. This spirit might be that of:

  • A natural force
  • An animal
  • A person, like an ancestor

When a person wearing a hand carved ceremonial African mask performs with it, they undergo a change. The mask and the costume are equally important because the mask hides the face of the wearer and the costume hides the body, concealing identity and providing a neutral place for the spirit to reside and create a new identity.

The movements of the spirit can be unpredictable and no matter who is wearing the mask, the African mask itself represents the spirit and shows that the spirit can be present among the audience and depending on the purpose of the visit, people might respond with joy at seeing the spirit, such as seeing an ancestor or they might respond with fear because of a dark spirit being present.

What parts of Africa are ceremonial masks found? 

Ceremonial African masks are found all over the continent, but especially Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone have many historical masks that have been excavated and remain on display at museums around the world. 

Historically while masks were able to represent male or female figures, the people who made the hand-carved ceremonial African masks were always men. Women were typically not allowed to wear masks although they could be audience members in a performance where a male participant wore a mask and costume. At other times the women were allowed to perform dances and sing songs that went with the performance of the mask wearer or even contribute to making the costume. Historically in certain instances women went so far as to provide personal clothing to create costumes for female characters.

Sierra Leone, where the Sande African masks were found, had the only known exception to the rule of men being the only ones to wear masks. Sowei, a spirit would often appear to young girls while they underwent the initiation of learning how to become a woman. The spirit provided guidance to the girls. The mask for Sowei was worn by an older woman in front of the younger women. Masks typically had rings around the neck with elaborate hair and delicate, feminine features.

The Yombi masks were often worn by women during fertility ceremonies. 

How long do ceremonial African Masks date back to? 

Some of the oldest ceremonial African masks are related to the Bantu people from southern Africa, prior to 3000-2500 BCE. 

What is the significance of a ceremonial African Mask? 

Hand carved ceremonial African masks were worn during important events for the community.

When young girls or boys came of age, transitioning into adulthood, masks could be worn during ceremonies where the wearer would not only celebrate this transition but help them learn the ways they needed to behave as adults.

Funeral processions also heavily involved hand carved ceremonial African masks, often portraying the deceased, honoring ancestors, providing guidance, or helping ancestors spirits to move into the next life.

When it came to agriculture, performances using African ceremonial masks might honor the spirits responsible for things like fertility or prosperity. Similar masks would be worn during fertility ceremonies for women or to celebrate the spirits that helped Farmers generate a successful harvest.

Masks would be worn for everyday celebrations including:

  • Births
  • Marriages
  • Festivals
  • Religious events
  • Leadership transition 

Elders would sometimes wear ceremonial African masks when rendering judgment, helping to make a decision by calling upon the spirits of ancestors. similarly, leaders might wear hand carved ceremonial African masks to ask for protection from the spirits against things like:

  • Natural disaster
  • War
  • Invasion
  • Disease
  • Drought
  • Famine 

As such, these masks were highly significant across several areas of life. Some would be very specific to an individual tribe because they related to tribal gods or tribal ceremonies but others would be related to Shared experiences like births, deaths, marriages, and harvests.

Are ceremonial African Masks still worn today? 

In some countries ceremonial African masks are still worn today especially during designated ceremonies, life events, or historical reenactments. educational programs put on by museums that own African masks include lessons on how to make masks, they're important, and ceremonies highlighting the use of a mask in such a ceremony. 

Do you have to belong to a certain tribe to wear a ceremonial mask? 

Masks made for African ceremonies are, yes, intended to be worn only by designated members of the tribe, often males, used for ceremonial purposes only. However, you can have hand-carved ceremonial African masks made for display purposes in your home or to use for local events. 

African tribal masks are not as common today because of tribal fragmentation; however, they were an important part of African history, where ceremonies that were a part of everyday life experiences such as birth, death, harvest, and coming of age ceremonies involved unique masks whose identities of which were specific to different tribes.

These masks had highly individual functions and meanings, with several tribal masks set aside for each type of ceremony or life event.

Tribal masks are still worn today in places like:

  • Mali
  • Burkina Faso
  • Bagon
  • Nigeria
  • Ivory Coast
  • Sierra LEone
  • DRC
  • Mozambique
  • Zambia

For these it is important to be a part of the tribe in order to wear the mask for ceremonial purposes. 

Are ceremonial African Masks displayed as home decor as well? 

Yes, today, modern iterations of hand-carved ceremonial African masks are often used as home decor, placed on stands much the way they are displayed in museums. These can offer great decor but also provide the same home for spirits of ancestors, ancient gods or goddesses, even animal spirits. 

Why are hand-carved antique African Masks so expensive? 

Hand carved antique African masks are expensive because they are just that: antique. Even modern iterations of hand carved ceremonial African masks are made through highly specialized and spiritual settings, often carved by a single male. They take a great amount of time, detail, and materials to craft.

Can they be used for spiritual purposes? 

Historical, hand-carved ceremonial African masks can absolutely be used for spiritual purposes. While many masks were historically intended for ceremonies called masquerades where a spirit might be called upon to occupy the body of the mask wearer, today masks can still be used for Spiritual purposes, offering an opportunity to display a mask or use a mask in the same historical context. 

What are ceremonial African masks made out of? 

Costumes were historically made from things like:

  • Poles
  • Hoops
  • Padding
  • Raffia
  • Fabric

Masks are made of many materials, each representative of the location and time period in which it was made. 

For example, some Chokwe masks from Zambia, representative of the ancestors were made of:

  • Wood
  • Glass beads
  • Vegetable fiber
  • Metal 

Ancient Sande masks which represented Sowei, a water spirit, were made with wood and raffia. 

Kuba masks from the Congo representative of the horned forest spirit were made of:

  • Wood
  • Plant fibers
  • Pigment
  • Copper
  • Cloth 

The Yombe mask was used in the DRC to represent the ideal female, with carefully filed teeth, a tribute that indicated the highest beauty in their culture. These masks were often made of:

  • Wood
  • Kaolin
  • Pigment 

Guro masks were typically made of wood and designed to embody female spirits, then used in dances to show the Guro women how to behave. 

The Luba people used to create helmet masks out of wood and pigment, which were designed to be worn over the head of the dancer just like a battle helmet. 

The Hemba tribe has the Misi gwa so’o mask, used as a symbol of death and made of wood, with half human features and half chimpanzee features. 

The Pende people used a Mbambi mask made from raffia, wood, and pigment, designed to embody the female antelope spirits. 

Bwa plank masks were used at initiation ceremonies, festivals for agriculture, and funerals, made from wood with pigment on top. 

The Barmum masks were made from wood, carved to look like an ancestor and worn during funerals or memorials. The mask wearer kept their face covered so the ancestor’s spirit could assume their body for the ceremony. 

How long does it typically take to make a ceremonial mask?

Historically there are three main types of hand carved ceremonial African masks:

  1. First, there are face masks, those that are the most common and curve right over the face but stop around the ears. These masks usually fall flat over the face.
  2. Second there are helmet masks which are designed to go over the head just like a helmet, sitting on the shoulders.
  3. Third, there are headdresses which are designed to sit on top of the head and in these cases costumes usually made of grass or raffia are attached to the bottom of the mask so that it covers the face of the wearer.

The shape of hand carved ceremonial African masks has varied historically as well. Some are designed to fit the shape of a human head While others are stylized with things like antlers or other animal features indicative of the animal spirit they represent. certain masks had multiple attributes like the head of a human with animal feathers, tusks, fangs, or other components. The idea was that when several attributes or features were combined on a mask so were the powers of those beings or spirits.

Some historical ceremonial African masks are quite small, just big enough to cover the face of the wearer. Others are well over 6 ft tall like the Bwa mask which means an individual had to have been a tall male strong enough to hold the mask against their body while also moving in a dance or performance.

The length of time it takes to make an African ceremonial mask varies significantly on the size, shape, type, and materials. For example, carving a 6 ft tall mask will take more time than a smaller headdress. However, there are modern iterations that can be completed within several weeks.

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