The Role of the Mask in West African Culture
Masks are used in the culture of West African people for several reasons. To
understand these reasons, first you must understand the link between masks and religion
in this part of the world. Part of this is a belief in nature and the desire to create a balance
between the rich natural surroundings and the people who live in this part of the world.
It is often considered that Africans did not believe in one God, their religion was
polytheistic. But this is not the case. A predominant belief system in various African
countries is called animism. This is a belief that all natural things have a soul and is one
of oldest world religions.
Everywhere in Africa one encounters the belief in a supreme power, an
omnipotent God on whose supernatural power people are wholly dependent. God,
Nzambi (Congo), Mboli (Sande), Nyame (Ashanti), Olorun (Yoruba), however, was too
far away and could only be approached through a mediator. This mediator often took the
form of a supernatural creature described as a nature spirit, or an ancestor. The nature
spirits, often related to natural forces, such as rivers, thunder, rain and forests, were
considered lesser spirits, while the ancestor spirits took the more prominent role, for they
were much closer to man and could directly influence his life. (Chanda, J. 1992)
Objects that represent these supreme beings are usually not masks. Masks
have a different purpose. They are used in rites and rituals that regulate social life or
ensure abundant harvests and human fertility. Masked dancers, often seen as the
incarnation of ancestor or nature spirits, perform in public or secret ceremonies. They
may oversee initiations or burials, they may be called upon in legal cases, or they may
simply be for entertainment.
Villages in West African nations contain the human world of law, family, and
agriculture. The bush is the domain of wild animals and powerful, unruly spirits.
Masquerades allow the villages to temporarily harness the power of the bush spirits, to
use for the purposes of civilization.
Usually, a mask is part of a larger costume that fully covers the performer. The
masked performer is but one participant in an event that usually involves acolytes,
musicians, singers, a chorus, and other masked performers.
Times have changed greatly for Africans since Europeans first arrived over 500
years ago, but old beliefs and customs don’t die out completely. Celebrations that involve
mask making are still practiced. The artists who create the masks are highly admired
craftsmen who place a high value on fine workmanship and mastery of woodworking.
Masks and Headdresses
Above are photos of a mask called the Sowei mask from Sierra Leone. The photo
on the left shows how the mask would be worn with the entire costume. The mask, made
of wood is worn over the head of a female elder who dances for the Sande women’s
society. The mask displays exaggerated features that show ideals of female beauty and
virtue: elaborately braided hair; a smooth broad forehead signifying nobility and
intelligence; lowered eyes showing restraint; well-shaped ears; small nose; small mouth
(a sign that she does not gossip), and a polished surface that reflects of female beauty and
The photos above show dancers wearing the Chi Wara mask of the Bamana
people in Mali and a close up of one of the headdresses. It is obvious that this is attached
to the top of the head of the performer and is not worn over the face. It shows the Chi
Wara, mythical “farming animal”, that taught agriculture to the ancestors of the Bamana.
It looks like an antelope type animal and symbolizes the ingredients of successful
cultivation. The close up of the headdress on the right is the female version of this
African Masks and Abstract Art
The artist Pablo Picasso, considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century,
was once given a gift from another artist friend of a mask brought back from a trip to
Africa. The wooden mask showed facial forms that had been simplified and were not
realistic at all. Picasso, used this style of art to begin a totally new painting movement,
Cubism. His new painting style had a great influence on artists who came later. Abstract
art is still an important art form. Look at this comparison between Picasso’s painting and
the African mask from the Lele.
Images retrieved on October 11, 2010 from
Images retrieved on October 11, 2010 from
Images retrieved on October 11, 2010 from http://www.artyfactory.com/africanmasks/
Images retrieved on October 11, 2010 from
Chanda, J. (1992) Alternative Concepts and Terminologies for Teaching African Art. Art
Education, 45(1), 56-61.
Cleveland Museum of Art Distance Learning Programs, African Mask packet (2003).
Pottery II– African Mask Wall Hanging
Key Learning: Artwork made by different cultures can influence the style of pottery
How can the study of
African art influence
design of a clay wall
Concept: To create a non-functional Concept: The element of shape,
clay sculpture that will hang on a color, and the principle of repetition
wall using the drape method. The are emphasized in the creation of
design of the artwork will be based this wall hanging.
on the study of African masks – Understanding the meaning of
their design, their purpose, the abstract art and learning paint brush
materials used to make them, and skills will expand students’
their importance in African culture. knowledge and skills in designing
Animism: an ancient religion that Craftsman: An artist who is skilled in
believes all natural subjects have a soul. making mostly functional art.
Ancestor: A relative who is no longer Pablo Picasso – the most influential
living artist of the 20th century
The bush: The unpopulated areas around Abstract Art – Art that shows a
civilization in Africa – habitats for wild simplified version of what an object
animals. really looks like
Mask – a ceremonial facial covering Paint Brush techniques: scumbling, dry
Headdress- part of a costume that sits on brush, glazing, sgraffito
top of the head.
1. Reading and Thinking: After reading the first part of this packet, summarize
what you have read. You don’t have to summarize using sentences. You can use
webs, outlines, or other graphic displays. See below:
2. Research: Look at different mask styles of West African or Central African
nations. Look at the web sites below to help you.
http://www.artyfactory.com/africanmasks/ ( This web site also has information about
creating a template for the mask)
3. At least 4 different designs should be drawn before you decide on the one you
will use. These drawings will be approved before you start and will be part of the
grade for the project.
4. When the decision has been made on the mask design, use the slab and drape
mold technique to create the mask. A paper template should be created to guide
the placement and shapes of the facial features. Watch for demonstrations on this.
5. The overall size of the mask should be no less than 12x18 inches. If necessary,
natural objects such as raffia, shells, or beads could be applied to the mask when
it is finished. Make sure you have made fastening devices for these
6. Make sure you pay attention to the craftsmanship on the back of the piece and
create “notches” so that it can be hung properly on a wall.
7. When the construction is complete, watch for demonstrations on paint brush
techniques. It is important to be able to apply underglaze to show blending and
value changes as well as color mixing skills. Use the underglaze as a painter
would paint. Colors should not be “flat.” Write down the names of the
underglazes you used and where you used them. This is important!!
7. Sign and place the finished piece on the cart. Remember: pottery will not be fired
unless it is signed.
8. Glaze after bisque firing – use a transparent matte or gloss glaze to cover the
9. Make sure you are using good slip, not a watered down type. Score both sides
of pieces you are attaching. Make sure there are no air pockets.
Pottery II – African Mask Wall Hanging
1. What is the answer to the essential
2. Describe the African mask that inspired your art. Make sure you write about the group
of people who made the mask, where they are from, what the mask is made of, and how it
is used or would have been used. Add any other important details to this description.
3. List the underglazes you used by name and order of application.
A+ A A- B+ B B- C+ C C- D+ D D- F
12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
Respond to the following: Student Teacher
1. Technique: The slabs have even thickness. The sides and ________ ________
back are smooth.
2. Design: The form is interesting and shows creativity in ________ ________
design. It shows the influence of the African mask example.
3. Craftsmanship: Any carved decoration is neatly applied. ________ ________
It has a notch in the back for hanging. All the parts are
4. Glaze: The underglaze painting shows evidence of ________ ________
scumbling, dry brush, and mixing colors together. The glaze
application is even – no bare spots, drips, etc. The back is
5. The above written part is in complete sentences and shows ________ ________
Total: ________ ________
Total / 5: ________ ________
Grade: ________ ________