Rythm of the African Jungle, Part 3: Use of Animal Masks

Animal masks are a common feature of masking societies throughout Africa. African masks should be seen as part of a ceremonial costume. They are used in religious and social events to represent the spirits of ancestors or to control the good and evil forces in the community. They come to life, possessed by their spirit in the performance of the dance, and are enhanced by both the music and atmosphere of the occasion. Some combine human and animal features to unite man with his natural environment. This bond with nature is of great importance to the African and through the ages masks have always been used to express this relationship.

In Mali the Tyiwara spirit masqueraders of the Bambara people carry formalized carvings of antelopes and other wild animals, dancing in imitation of their movements to promote the fertility of land and community. The Isinyaso masked dancers of the Yao and Maku peoples of Tanzania carry elaborate bamboo structures covered with cloth and raffia, which sway rhythmically while their Nteepana mask elongates to great heights as the embodiment of a powerful animal spirit.

The type of mask influences the style of the masquerade dance. The Ikpelweme ancestral masqueraders of the Afemai people of Bendel State, Nigeria, wear richly coloured, close-fitting costumes with face masks and elaborate headpieces of embroidered cloth, which allow for a dance that accelerates into a climax of rapid, abrupt movement. The Nago and Akakayi ancestral masqueraders of the Gwari wear close-fitting head and body coverings, which permit rapid, staccato movements while dancing at the “second burial” (i.e., the post-burial celebrations) of a leader of the community. The Egungun ancestral masqueraders of Yorubaland appear in a wide variety of loosely flowing cloth or palm-leaf costumes, often with carved headpieces.

The heavier the mask, the less freedom for dance. For example, Epa masqueraders of the Ekiti-Yoruba carry carved helmet masks with elaborate superstructures whose weight allows only the type of movement fitting the stately processional dances that confirm the masqueraders’ role of ritual leadership. Masked stilt dancers, such as those of the Makonde of Tanzania, are largely restricted to rhythmic strides and gestures; in contrast, the simple cloth costumes of ancestral Egungun Elewe of the Igbomina-Yoruba allow for a dance of acrobatic skill, and the light raffia Igo masks of the neighbouring Edo people enable them to lift their costumes above their heads in a dance of whirling turns.

Interesting African masks information

  • African masks are generally made to be used. This African art is usually made to be used in various ceremonies and social events such as weddings and funerals.
  • Masks usually have a spiritual meaning or connection.
  • The artists who create mask are given a special status.
  • The masks making skill and knowledge of the spiritual meanings held by masks are passed down from father to son.
  • Masks are usually designed to appear human or animal or a combination of the two.
  • Masks are often decorated with such things as animal hair or straw (for hair and beards), animal horns, animal teeth, feathers, and sea shells.
  • Not everyone in a tribe has the honor of wearing a mask; it is usually only a select few in the tribe. Often only men and sometimes only elders are given this honor.
  • It is generally believed that the individual who wears the mask transforms into a spirit. This transformation usually takes place during some type of ritual. This can allow for communication between humans and spirits.
  • African masks often represent the cultural values of the tribe. For example In Gabon large mouths and chins represent strength and authority.
  • Masks are usually made out of wood. Other materials that are used include metals (especially bronze and copper), light stone, fabric, and pottery.
  • Often masks are painted.

Information on African Mask Types

There is a huge variety of mask types found in Africa which makes classifying them a difficult task. This type of African art ranges from very detailed and accurate figures to the very abstract. African masks can be classified into the following basic types:

  • Face mask – are the most common mask type. They are used throughout Africa. They can be secured to the face in several ways. These methods include with a band or string put through holes on each side of the mask, held on by a wig, or secured by a scarf.
  • Headdress masks – are actually are set on a base which sits on top of the wearers head. The Bambara (Bamana), who are the largest ethnic group in Mali, are famous for this type of mask.
  • Shoulder masks – are usually large and heavy and rest on the wearer’s shoulders.
  • Helmet masks – fit over the wearer’s entire head and are usually carved from a section of tree trunk.
  • Helmet crests – Unlike the helmet masks these mask do not fit over the wearer’s entire head but rather is worn like a hat, leaving the face exposed.
  • Cap crests (forehead masks) – This type of mask is worn on the forehead leaving the wearer’s face exposed.
Fiber masks from Lery village.
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