12 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About African Tribal Masks

Female masks of the people of Gabon have significantly long eyelashes, almond-shaped eyes, small chin, and ancestral embellishments on their cheeks.

Ancient tribal masks of Africa portrayed multiple things, including a connection with divine deities, spirits, and the deceased. People wore them during religious or sacred ceremonies, exclusive events, funerals, etc.

 

mwana pwo
The Mwana Pwo Mask. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ngady amwaash
The Ngady Amwaash Mask. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, African masks were not just an interpretation of art; they connected individuals to their gods. Every single mask had a specific spiritual purpose.

Following are some significant facts about the tribal masks of Africa:

1) The ancestral religion of the people of Mali comprises three primary cults; the ‘Awa’ cult of the dead, the ‘Bini’ cult of the communication with the spirits, and the ‘Lebe’ cult of nature. They had different masks to represent different cults.

2) Each of these masks had a different set of spirits assigned to them.

3) The artistic nature and complexity of a mask portray the significance and value of the spirit. For example, simpler masks such as the ‘kple kple’ are affiliated with lesser or minor spirits mainly because they are not complex.

4) In African cultures, individuals who wear ritual masks lose their human life and nature and eventually turn into a spirit represented by the mask.

5) Moreover, the transformation of a mask wearer into a spirit generally depends on other practices, such as specific types of melody and dance, or ritual ensembles that contribute to the shedding of the mask wearer’s identity as a human being.

6) The mask wearers ultimately become a medium that allows the rest of the community to have a conversation with the spirits or deities.

7) Masked dances are part of African culture. The most complex rituals have been recorded in Nigeria.

8) Some African masks also portray female beauty. Female masks of the people of Gabon have significantly long eyelashes, almond-shaped eyes, small chin, and ancestral embellishments on their cheeks, as all these are considered pleasant traits.

9) One of the best depictions of female beauty can be seen on the masks of Benin. It is believed to have been approved by King Esigie of Benin in memory of his deceased mother. To honour his mother, the king wore the mask on his hip during special rituals.

10) Tribal masks representing the deceased ancestors are generally shaped like a human skull. For example, the ‘mwana pwo’ mask of the Chokwe people of Angola, is a combination of feminine features and death. It portrays a female ancestor who died young.

11) Some special masks are specifically designed for famous, historical or legendary people. The ‘mwaash ambooy’ mask of the Kuba people portrays the founder of the Kuba Kingdom. Furthermore, the ‘Ngady Amwaash’ mask represents his wife called ‘Mweel’.

12) The tribal masks are still a significant part of African culture. The most commonly used material for the tribal masks is wood. However, a wide variety of other elements can be used, including steatite, copper, bronze, different kinds of fabric, etc. Moreover, an extensive range of decorative items can be applied to the mask, including animal hair, horns, teeth, seashells, feathers, etc. Animal hair or straw are oftentimes used for a mask’s hair or beard.

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